Erin Brockovich may be the most famous class action plaintiff—so famous, in fact, that Julia Roberts played her in a movie named after her. But she’s certainly not the only lead plaintiff to claim restitution from a misbehaving corporation, not to mention the thousands of other plaintiffs behind each case who may not even know about their involvement until they receive settlement checks.
How Class Action Suits Work
According to the legal-consulting Web site FreeAdvice.com, there are three requirements for certification of a class action lawsuit: the claim must be deemed legal; the group of plaintiffs must have the same complaint and be of such size that individual claims would be too time-consuming and costly for the court; and the lead plaintiff must stand to represent the entire class fairly and accurately, and ensure that monetary awards are distributed appropriately.
Once attorneys have obtained certification from the court, the original plaintiffs must notify potential claimants of the lawsuit through mail and media. Those notified may opt in to the lawsuit or choose not to participate. Here’s where it gets tricky. If an individual joins the suit, she will be unable to pursue future claims against the company. If she fails to opt out by missing the deadline to do so, she will still be represented in the case and will forfeit future claims, regardless of the court’s decision.
That’s a great reason to read all your mail carefully.
Pacific Gas and Electric
With Erin Brockovich as lead plaintiff, attorneys of the class action lawsuit against Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) in 1993 alleged that the company was aware that harmful chemicals—especially hexavalent chromium, also known as chromium(VI)—used in production were seeping into the groundwater and contaminating the water supply in the surrounding town of Hinkley, California. As a result of ingesting chromium(VI), Hinkley residents became ill with various forms of cancer and fertility problems, among other health issues.
According to David Seaman of MainStreet.com, the PG&E case resulted in the largest settlement ever paid in a direct action lawsuit in U.S. history. The court ruled in favor of the Hinkley citizens in 1996, and the energy company was forced to pay a total of $295 million to 1,100 people (about $268,000 per person).
Another class action suit that became a major motion picture is the Eveleth Mines case of 1984. In the 2005 movie North Country, Charlize Theron played Lois Jenson, who was hired as one of the first female employees of the Eveleth iron mine in northern Minnesota. Jenson and her fellow female coworkers endured brutal sexual harassment from the men at the mine; it was so bad that Jenson and another woman were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Jenson called more than fifty lawyers before finding one that would represent her. When the case was finally accepted in 1991, it was the first sexual harassment suit in history to reach class action status.
But the court proceedings were just as abusive for Jenson and her fellow plaintiffs as working in the mines was. The judge permitted Eveleth’s lawyers to obtain the women’s full medical histories, and the defending attorneys subjected the women to almost eighty days of grueling depositions that probed their personal and sexual pasts, though none of these details was relevant to the case. One plaintiff said, “I felt I was raped on the stand.”
However, in 1998, on the eve of the actual jury trial, the women settled with Eveleth for a total of $3.5 million.
The same year Jenson won her court battle, A Class Action, starring Robert Duvall and John Travolta, debuted in movie theaters. The movie was based on the Anderson et al. v. W. R. Grace & Co. et al. case, which began in 1982.
According to the book A Civil Action, by Jonathan Harr, the citizens of Woburn, Massachusetts, filed suit against W.R. Grace & Co., owner of the Cryovac food-packaging plant, alleging that the company contaminated the city’s drinking water supply with carcinogens. Seven of the plaintiff’s children developed leukemia; five of those children died from their disease, and one plaintiff’s spouse developed acute myelocytic leukemia and died as well.
In 1986, the plaintiffs and W.R. Grace & Co. reached an $8 million settlement out of court, including monetary awards for five other families who had filed a separate lawsuit against the company for health issues other than leukemia.
After the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) removed Fen-Phen diet pills from the market because of heart valve damage related to the drug’s use in 1997, it wasn’t long before users filed a class action lawsuit against the company.
According to the national law firm Parker Waichman Alonso LLP, drugmaker Wyeth settled the case, involving more than 125,000 former Fen-Phen users, for $3.75 billion in 2000. An additional seventy thousand users opted out of the suit to pursue individual cases against the company; Wyeth set aside $16.6 billion to resolve these cases.
The most popular social-networking Web site is not immune to litigation, either. Facebook launched a new advertising program, Beacon, in 2007 to allow the transmission of purchase- and consumer-related information among partner retailers, Facebook itself, and Facebook friends, according to CircleID.
Most users were unaware of Beacon until a man whose marriage proposal plans were destroyed by the program made it public. “Will” purchased an engagement ring from Overstock.com to surprise his girlfriend on New Year’s Eve, a move that was immediately published on his Facebook newsfeed for all of his friends, family members—and girlfriend—to read.
Users sued Facebook, alleging that Beacon was an invasion of privacy, and the social-networking site settled in 2009 by agreeing to establish a privacy foundation for $9.5 million and to discontinue Beacon.
Gotta Have Class
Brockovich, Jenson, Anderson, and other lead plaintiffs of class action lawsuits don’t obtain restitution only for their own wrongs—they also show the rest of us that the average citizen can achieve justice, despite the odds.