Class Action FAQ > Class Action Terminology > What is a class action?

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A “class action” is a management tool for cases in which a few or even one person seeks to represent a large group of people (generally 40 or more, and sometimes as many as hundreds of thousands)  subjected to similar or identical misconduct. Rather than requiring each member of the group (often called the “class”) to file individual lawsuits, the class action suit allows one or more persons (sometimes referred to as “class representatives”) to obtain relief on behalf of all members of the affected group. This special management procedure promotes judicial efficiency and lowers the costs of bringing the suit.

The term "class action" is used in two ways.  When a lawsuit is filed and the plaintiff seeks court permission to use the class action management device, that suit is often called a "class action."  However, until a court approves the lawsuit for class action status, it is really a proposed class action.  Despite that, attorneys and judges often call any case a "class action" if class action status is requested.

In class actions, the individual claim of each class member is often too small to justify the time and expense of an individual lawsuit. The class action combines claims so that they can be considered as one large claim. If the court agrees that the claims of the group are sufficiently similar to justify use of the class action device, it will “certify” the case as a class action, and the individuals representing the class will be permitted to bring the law suit on behalf of the entire certified class. If the court refuses to certify the class, then the lawsuit does not represent the larger group.

In cases where monetary damages are requested, if the representatives of the class obtain a settlement of the class claims or prevail at trial, the members of the class will have an opportunity to share in any damages that are recovered for the class.

Federal and state courts all have their own rules governing how lawsuits are to be handled when they include a request for class action treatment. The federal courts rely upon the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (Rule 23 of the Federal Rules) when class action lawsuits are filed in any federal court. Some states have devised their own rules for class actions, while other states model their rules upon the Federal Rules. California follows the Federal Rules and class action decisions for guidance when California statutes and court decisions have not yet answered a particular question about the class action case management device.

The law governing class actions is complex. This summary is not comprehensive.  Instead, it provides a basic overview of class actions.  This summary is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. Please read our disclaimer for additional important information about this web site. 

Last updated on November 25, 2009 by Ira Spiro

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