Mass Tort or Class Action Lawsuit: Which One’s Right For You?

If a defective drug, product or medical device injures you, you can file a claim to get justice and compensation. But most people don’t understand what mass tort means, or how it’s different from a class action lawsuit. We’re going to break down these terms in language that makes it easy to understand what makes each one different. Then, you can decide which one’s right for you based on your unique situation.

Class Action: What It Is, Legal Requirements, Benefits & Examples

What It Is

A class action simply means many different people with the exact same problem sue the same defendant. For whatever reason, people often believe all drug and medical device lawsuits with multiple plaintiffs are actually class actions. Not true! In fact, most class actions have nothing to do with things that go inside your body or medications. Instead, these lawsuits simply join together a large group of people with the same complaint against the same defendant. Once certified, the court treats that entire group like it’s one individual plaintiff.

Legal Requirements

Under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, lawsuits must meet following criteria before certifying them into a class action:

  1. There are too many injured people to reasonably name everyone in a traditional lawsuit
  2. An individual or small number of plaintiffs accept a leadership role to fairly and adequately represent the group’s interests
  3. Everyone is suing the same defendant for pretty much identical reasons
  4. The whole group shares common questions of law or fact that require a court ruling

Now, class actions can also happen at the state level, not just federal court. About 85% of class actions today happen at the federal level. Individual states handle the rest, and some have unique rules that apply to those class actions. For example: If you try to certify a class action in Wisconsin, claims must be worth less than $7,000/apiece. But if combined claims exceed $5 million or involves defendants from multiple U.S. states, it becomes a federal class action.  

Class Action Benefits

Grouping together a large number of claims under a certified class action offers many benefits, such as:

  1. It’s a fast, efficient way for many people that wouldn’t normally file lawsuits to get justice and compensation. For example: A company sells you their $50 product that breaks after two uses, but won’t refund anyone’s money. But successful class actions ensure the company pays back everyone who bought their faulty product.
  2. Since the mid-1960s, certified class actions automatically include all injured parties. If you don’t want to join the class, then you must choose to opt out. Otherwise, you’ll get paid your percentage of the settlement money without having to do anything else.
  3. A collective court ruling on many people’s behalf can sometimes deter wrongdoing in the future. In the late 1970s, many states started holding bartenders legally liable for over-serving patrons that later caused drunk-driving accidents. This resulted in fewer deaths from alcohol-related traffic accidents.
  4. The last people to file get an equal shot at claiming their fair share of any settlement money. Joining a class action lawsuit ensures everyone gets paid the same amount, even if the defendant goes bankrupt afterwards. If the first successful lawsuit bankrupts a defendant, everyone else gets nothing in return for suffering the exact same harm.  

Examples of Famous Class Actions

Some famous class actions that transformed people’s lives over the last century include:

  1. Brown vs. Board of Education. This 1954 Supreme Court ruling found racial segregation in public schools to be unconstitutional. As a result, it struck down countless state laws across the nation.
  2. Roe v. Wade. This 1973 class action combined civil claims filed in three different states under one class action. The Supreme Court’s ruling made abortion legal nationwide, striking down the 1851 Texas law criminalizing it unless the mother’s life was in danger.
  3. 1998 Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement (MSA). Today, kids grow up knowing that smoking may cause cancer. But it took every U.S. Attorney General filing claims on each state’s behalf to deliver this record-breaking $206 billion settlement. Because of this landmark class action ruling, everyone now knows the dangers smoking poses. 
  4. Anderson v. Pacific Gas & Electric. If you saw the movie Erin Brockovich, then you already know the basis for this case. Residents in Hinkley, CA successfully sued PG&E for knowingly contaminating local groundwater with a cancer-causing substance, hexavalent chromium. PG&E then settled this class action for $333 million in 1996.  

Mass Tort: What It Is, Legal Requirements, Benefits & Examples

What It Is

Mass tort refers to civil lawsuits filed in either state or federal court on many different injured people’s behalf. These usually involve defective products, drugs and medical devices, but not always. (Asbestos is one famous mass tort case that most people recognize immediately.)

Legal Requirements

What makes mass tort cases different from a legal standpoint? Like class actions, mass torts can join together at either the state or federal level. Multiple mass tort cases with similar injuries that name the same defendant can join a multi-county litigation (MCL). When that happens at the federal level, it’s called multi-district litigation (MDL). The key difference between mass torts and class actions is how the court treats those plaintiffs.

Mass torts come together for much the same reasons as class actions do: To save time and money on litigation. This ensures every plaintiff receives solid legal representation when suing one or a few defendants. It groups pre-trial proceedings and resolves individual cases quickly. However, that’s where the similarities end.

Every mass tort plaintiff receives individual treatment in court, and successful verdicts typically pay much larger settlements.

Mass Tort Benefits

Mass torts and class actions often provide very similar benefits. A few standout benefits for mass tort claims in particular include:

  1. Holding negligent companies accountable for people’s injuries and/or deaths. Think about U.S. Food and Drug Administration recalls for dangerous drugs and devices such as Essure, TVM or Vioxx. For TVM, it took 20 years of horrific injury reports and multibillion-dollar verdicts to pull pelvic mesh off the market. For this reason, women can rest easy knowing their daughters won’t suffer similar life-changing injuries in the future.
  2. Enforcing, increasing or establishing federal safety standards. Two Boeing 737 MAX planes crashed in October 2018 and March 2019, killing all passengers instantly. However, the company’s board took no action to ensure passenger safety until five months later. Nor did the U.S. government order that model grounded until lawsuits (and public outcry) demanded a response.
  3. Mass tort settlement awards take your individual injuries and experiences into account. In other words, it doesn’t matter if 20,000 people already sued and won their cases against a single defendant. The court looks at how badly you’re hurt and how it affects your life personally in addition to expected future costs. In 2018, 22 anonymous women with terminal ovarian cancer successfully sued Johnson & Johnson for $2.12 billion in damages. A later court ruling upheld this verdict, ensuring each plaintiff received nearly $100 million in settlement money.
  4. You can access the best possible mass tort lawyer available to represent your case. Since most mass torts join federal MDLs, your attorney doesn’t need a license to practice law in your state. If you want Erin Brockovich to represent your mass tort case but don’t live in California, then go for it! Because it’s one of the few claim types attorneys can represent across multiple state lines.

Examples of Famous Mass Tort Cases

We just mentioned that staggering $2.12 billion talcum powder verdict against J&J, but there are many other examples. There are many different mass tort cases most people might recognize, such as:

  1. Merck’s 2008 Vioxx settlement worth $4.85 billion. The drug giant paid to settle 50,000 mass tort claims from plaintiffs who allegedly suffered heart attacks as well as strokes.
  2. Agent Orange litigation brought by Vietnam veterans. Today, we know that deadly herbicide dioxin can cause cancer and even birth defects. But it took the 1984 $180 million settlement to trigger the VA’s intervention. As a result, affected veterans and their children may file VA compensation claims for Agent Orange exposure.
  3. Mass tort cases linking asbestos exposure to mesothelioma as well as other cancers. Legal experts consider asbestos the “granddaddy” of mass torts, and it’s easy to see why. Asbestos litigation started in the 1970s and is still ongoing. By 2002, about 730,000 people filed mass tort claims against 8,400 different businesses and entities. Insurance companies and manufacturers paid more than $70 billion to date. Thanks to mass tort litigation, both the EPA and OSHA regulate asbestos to minimize public health risks.

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Lori Polemenakos is Director of Consumer Content and SEO strategist for LeadingResponse, a legal marketing company. An award-winning journalist, writer and editor based in Dallas, Texas, she's produced articles for major brands such as, Yahoo!, MSN, AOL, Xfinity,, and edited several published books. Since 2016, she's published hundreds of articles about Social Security disability, workers' compensation, veterans' benefits, personal injury, mass tort, auto accident claims, bankruptcy, employment law and other related legal issues.