The Center for Justice & Democracy recently released a white paper on the sad state of class action lawsuits–as big companies have engaged in many attempts to undermine the critical legal tool. The increased difficulty in using class action lawsuits may have implications on some cases where brain injuries are involved. As with anything connected to the civil justice system, the weakening of citizen rights usually coincides with decreased protection and accountability of those whose negligence causes harm.
Understanding Class Actions
Most understand that class action lawsuits refer to special cases when a few plaintiffs are in court to represent themselves and many others (perhaps thousands) who were similarly harmed by some action. This is practicality tool, as it is often far more convenient (and less expensive) to adjudicate a matter once than thousands of times individually.
In some cases the individual harm to each plaintiff is such that it is too small to reasonably allow for justice. For example, if a bank illegally charges an extra $10 fee, it is unlikely that a single person could justify paying the fees and costs of a lawsuit in order to recover that money. The bank may have done this to 100,000 customers, however, reaping a million dollars unlawfully. The only way to hold them accountable is usually via a class action, when resources can be combined to vindicated the rights of the injured customers as a group.
Large corporations are usually the defendants in these matters, because they are the ones most likely to harm a large group of individuals at once. This may include businesses like national or international automobile manufacturers. In the past car defects and other auto problems have been handled with class actions lawsuits. As we’ve noted previously, car accidents are the single biggest cause of serious traumatic brain injuries. Ensuring the safety of all vehicles is a critical tool in minimizing TBIs, and so open access to class action lawsuits is important.
Limiting Citizen Rights
Yet many are growing concerned about the “demise” of these suits. This is a result of both damaging legislation and dangerous court cases.
For example, as the CJ&D paper notes, in 2005 Congress passed a law that allows corporations who are defendants in these cases to “remove” them to federal court, where they deem their chances more favorable. This has clogged the federal court system (which is much smaller than state systems), resulting in huge backlogs and event the dismissal of cases with merit.
In addition the U.S. Supreme Court issued a few recent opinions which may limit the number of cases that meet the requirements to be “certified” as a class-action. In a high-profile case against Wal-Mart for sexual discrimination, the rights of more than 1 million women were deemed to lack the “commonality” requirement of a class–resulting in the suit getting thrown out, and the rights of those affecting practically eliminated. A similar ruling in a case for over-charging cable customers also resulted in the refusal of a class to be certified.
Perhaps even more damaging, the Court is also considering whether certain forced arbitration agreements can eliminate the option of pursuing class action. If allowed this would essentially permit the largest companies to chose on their own to make it impossible for any class action to be pursued against them. It is a staggeringly unfair proposition.
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