"Class action lawsuits are an important part of our legal system. All citizens should have the right to band together and settle grievances with bigger companies, but that system is broken and it needs fixing."—Thomas Carper.
When a group of citizens bands together and uses their collective power to sue another party, usually a corporation or large organization, it is known as a class action lawsuit. Predominantly an American legal action, class action lawsuits are a modern innovation which has shaped the way justice is served in the Western world. Allowing for groups of people to seek justice in a more economically and speedy way, in which not everyone needs to be present, class action suits continue to rise in popularity, despite their critics. So, how far have people taken this legal endeavor? Keep reading to find out!
Class Action Lawsuits Facts
The longest trial in British history occurred from a civil suit which has been dubbed the McLibel Trial. Two British vegetarians had passed around a leaflet with claims against McDonald's in the 1990s that the fast food company believed to be libelous. McDonald’s subsequently sued the two activists and would win their case. However, due to the nature of the case and its length, there was a media fiasco which embarrassed the company. Even though the judge ruled in their favor, he berated the company for their exploitative and damaging business practices.
38. Part II
Because every good show needs a sequel, there was actually a McLibel 2, and this time the activists won in the European Court of Human Rights! The second time around, the court ruled that the United Kingdom government had to pay the two activists compensation because the laws of the country did not properly protect citizens from the right to openly criticize large corporations.
37. Tech Battle
There is a currently an ongoing lawsuit between the two electronic titans Apple and Samsung, in which each is arguing over smartphone who has the rights to the patent designs. This legal war touches many different countries, at one point the two tech giants were battling in 50 different cases involving billions of dollars around the world.
36. Roe v. Wade
Roe v. Wade was the landmark case that provided American women with the right to get an abortion. However, there was never actually a woman named Jane Roe. Instead, it was a legal pseudonym used by Norma McCorvey in order to protect herself during the proceedings. After the decision was handed out, McCorvey stated that she sought the abortion because she was suffering from depression and was unemployable. She also claimed that she had actually been used as a pawn by ambitious, young lawyers Linda Coffee and Sarah Weddington who were seeking a plaintiff that would allow them to challenge Texas' abortion laws.
35. Switching Sides
Years after Roe v. Wade changed the face of the United States by giving women more rights over their bodies, the woman behind it all recanted her position. Norma McCorvey converted to Roman Catholicism later in life and not only claimed she was no longer a lesbian, but began working as a pro-life activist.
34. Tough Youth
When a 21-year-old Norma McCorvey got pregnant for the third time, she sought an abortion. She first attempted to claim that she was raped, in order to have it done under a Texas state exemption, but the plot failed. Sadly, she had actually been raped in her youth and gave birth to a child when she was just 18. She and her young child moved in with her mother at this time, but she soon fell into a deep depression and battled with alcoholism. Once, after she went to visit friends one weekend, she returned to find that her mother had replaced her child with a plastic doll and had reported her to the police, saying that she had abandoned her baby. McCorvey's mother didn't allow her to see her child for months after this, before one day waking her up early one morning to sign some insurance papers. However, her mother, in fact, tricked her into signing over custody of the baby. As soon as the papers were signed, her mother kicked her out of the house.
33. Super Bowl Slip
The Super Bowl XXXVIII halftime show has gone down in television history for the Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake nipple slip, but some people weren’t happy. There were a couple of class action lawsuit cases that arose in the aftermath, as people claimed that the “sexually explicit acts” were damaging. The cases were eventually dropped because... seriously? It was only a breast.
32. Grand Theft Coffee
Take-Two Interactive, the company that owns the creator of the wildly popular Grand Theft Auto series, is used to controversy. After the release of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, it was found that there was a modification in the game in which characters engage in sexual intercourse. Known as the “hot coffee” mod, as coffee was used as a euphemism for the crudely animated sex, parents in North America were outraged. Eventually, a class action suit was filed against Take-Two for consumer fraud, due to the hot coffee mod.
31. Honorary Statue
Many politicians went after the producers of Grand Theft Auto because they failed to disclose the sexual content of the game. You know, the game already known for car theft, shooting sprees, and prostitution. For her role in the hot coffee mod scandal, Hillary Clinton made an appearance in the next Grand Theft Auto game, GTA IV. The makers of the game put her face on the Statue of Happiness (an allusion to the Statue of Liberty) and placed a cup of hot coffee in her hand in place of a torch.
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30. Canadian Smokers
After awarding $15 billion to smokers from Quebec, the class action court case brought up against Imperial Tobacco Canada, JTI-Macdonald Corp., and Rothmans Benson & Hedges—the three biggest cigarette companies in Canada—went down in history as the largest sum ever won in Canada. This has inspired other provinces throughout the country to get together and sue large tobacco companies.
29. Internet For the Blind
A big step for the internet came with the National Federation of the Blind v. Target Corp. class action suit in 2006. Claiming the inaccessibility of the large company's website for blind people was discriminatory, eventually, a deal was reached and since Target has engaged in a partnership with the NFB to further ensure the accessibility for the blind community on the internet.
28. Historic for Women
The first-ever sexual harassment class action suit was filed in 1988 against a mining company in Minnesota. After nine years of harassment, Lois Jensen finally filed an official complaint, only to have her tires slashed. The company then refused to pay punitive damages, which led to her taking the issue all the way up the court system. Sadly, she would be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder from the harassment, but the suit proved to be a success—ten years later a settlement was finally reached for $3.5 million right before the trial was actually set to begin.
27. Rooted in England
While the class action lawsuit is a modern American innovation, it was actually a legal tactic used as far back as 1200 AD in medieval England. For about 200 years, this “group litigation” was even a normal occurrence, as often entire guilds, towns, or villages would join up and sue. Sometimes, entire these entire groups themselves were even sued.
26. Class Action Death
Though England seemed to be way ahead of the curve in terms of legal advances, group litigation would start to fade away during the Wars of the Roses due to the utter confusion it brought, and became frozen during the time of the Star Chamber (an English court of law around the time of the Renaissance). By the time the mid 19th century rolled around, group litigation was basically extinct in the British legal system.
25. Rule 23
The original conception for modern class action suits came from the idea that grouped litigation that classes together the entirety of shareholders in a company could sue together as a way to get around direct government regulation of markets. It wasn’t until civil rights groups sprouted up in the 1960s, though, that these suits were written into law with Rule 23.
24. Suing the Church
It isn’t always a class that files the suit, as an entire class can also be sued. One such case took place during the Catholic priest sex-abuse scandal in 2004 when the plaintiffs who claimed to have been sexually abused by priests sued the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon. Every church parishioner of all of their churches was included in the defendant class. This was done in order to ensure that all the Archdiocese’s assets would be included if a settlement were to be required.
23. Bankrupt Church
The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon is no small fish, as they make up the entire western portion of the state of Oregon and include 124 parishes. Due to the suit, the Catholic Archdiocese was forced to file for bankruptcy, becoming the first to do so in history.
22. Lawyer of the NFL
Perhaps the most famous lawyer associated with class action suits is Ted Wells. Well has represented political figures Eliot Spitzer and Scooter Libby as well as cigarette company Philip Morris, Johnson & Johnson and Citigroup (for whom he won $364.2 million). But perhaps his most famous cases have come over the past several years, as he had twice represented the NFL and was the lawyer behind the Deflategate scandal of 2015.
21. The Importance of Free Speech
A leading figure in class action lawsuits, David Shapiro is a lawyer who first came to the public eye after he represented George Lincoln Rockwell—the leader of the American Nazi Party—after being asked to do so by the American Civil Liberties Union. Shapiro was a Jew, and even though he was able to have Rockwell's case dismissed in an impressive 20 minutes, the Nazi leader told him afterward: "Listen up, Jewboy, just because you got me off, that doesn’t do anything for you. Make sure you understand that I’ll watch as you and all the other Jews go to the gas chamber.”
20. Massive Payout
One of the largest sums of money ever won in a class action suit was $7.12 billion from Enron. At one point listed by Forbes as the 7th largest company in the world, the collapse of Enron was a rapid one for the company that bought and sold energy.
19. Destroying Evidence
By hiding billions of dollars in debt through complex loopholes and the creation of entities, Enron had pressured their accounting firm to ignore what was found during auditing, resulting in one of the largest auditing failures in history. By the time things were finally falling apart, many employees began destroying documents and financial records.
18. Beating Enron
When Enron went bankrupt, they had $63.4 billion in assets. This would be the largest corporate bankruptcy in history until only one year later when WorldCom went bankrupt with $107 billion in assets. Whereas Enron turned to complexity to hide their money, WorldCom kept it simple by cooking their books, inflating their net incoming by listing expenses under investments.
17. Bad Accounting
The same accounting firm working with Enron was also the accounting firm working with WorldCom—Arthur Andersen, LLP. These controversies resulted in the demise of the firm, which at one point was one of the “Big Five” accounting firms and one of the largest multinational corporations in the world.
16. Taking Down Enron after Joe Camel
The lawyer that argued the Enron case was William Lerach. Leach was also the lawyer responsible for getting stopping the Joe Camel advertising campaign by cigarette company RJ Reynolds. Despite his contributions, he was sentenced to prison for obstruction of justice in 2007 and disbarred from being a lawyer in 2009. He was involved in a class action suit kickback scheme that he then lied about being a part of while under oath in the court of law.
In 2008, the New England Patriots were facing a class action suit regarding their Super Bowl victory in 2002. Former St. Louis Rams safety Willie Gary—who was on the losing team in that Super Bowl—and their season ticket holders sued the Patriots for $100 million because the Patriots had been videotaping the Rams' practices leading up to the Super Bowl. The case was dropped, however, after the NFL hindered the case by refusing to cooperate. In a controversial move, the NFL commissioner even had the videotapes destroyed.
14. Asking For Payment
For many years, if a member of the United States military was discovered to be gay, then they would be honorably discharged under the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Eventually, a class action suit was filed after a former Air Force Staff Sergeant found that his separation payment was half that of those discharged under different pretenses. The case would be successful, leading to 181 different ex-soldiers being paid about $13,000 each in back payment.
13. Recommendation Laws
Before medical marijuana was legalized, a class action suit was won that allowed doctors to at least recommend marijuana use in cases they deemed it healthy. This was a big step for doctor and patient rights, as it upholds that a patient should hear accurate information regardless of its legality.
12. Diamond Monopoly
For a long time, De Beers diamond company was able to fix the price of diamonds in the United States and essentially monopolize the market. This was until 2008 when a historic settlement was reached through a class action suit in which the company had to pay out $295 million to diamond purchasers and agree to an injunction which prohibits their attempt to fix prices and monopolize the supply of diamonds in the world.
11. Banana Scandal
Chiquita Brands has been forced to pay a $25 million fine for their involvement in funding terrorism in Columbia. Though the company was based in Cincinnati at the time, from the 1970s to early 21st century, Chiquita was paying a terrorist organization to protect their most profitable farm operations throughout Columbia.
10. Brown v. Board
In the 1950s, 13 parents from Topeka, Kansas filed a class action suit that became known as Brown v. Board of Education. The namesake of one parent, Oliver L. Brown was chosen to lead the case that attempted to overturn racial segregation in schools because the lawyers thought the best legal strategy would be to have a man head the roster of plaintiffs.
9. Five Combined Cases
Though it is treated as if it was one case, Brown v. Board of Education Topeka was one of five different cases which were grouped together and brought to the Supreme Court. The other four cases that Brown v. Board represented were Briggs v. Elliott, Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, Gebhart v. Belton, and Boiling v. Sharpe. The cases were initially filed in South Carolina, Virginia, Delaware, and Washington DC. Sadly, before these cases had reached the supreme court, only in Gebhart v. Belton did a judge find that segregation in schools amounted to unlawful discrimination.
8. Close Call
Brown v. Board is one of the most iconic supreme court cases in the history of the United States, but it almost went the other way. The Justices were on the fence about school segregation, and it took much work by Chief Justice Earl Warren to convince the other justices that they needed to come to a unanimous decision on such a monumental case.
7. Death in the Court
Though he was the Chief Justice during the decision of the Brown v. Board case, Earl Warren actually was not the head justice when the Supreme Court initially took the suit. Fred M. Vinson was the sitting Chief Justice when the court decided to hear Brown v. Board, but he died of a heart attack before it was heard. This is seen as a pivotal moment in the case, as Vinson was a conservative judge who thought that the government should not pass desegregation legislation as he, and the other dissenters, did not want to overturn the precedent of the day (the Plessy v. Segregation decision).
6. From Standing to Sitting
Thurgood Marshall was the man who argued the Brown v. Board case in front of the Supreme Court. Marshall, who was the chief counsel of the NAACP at the time, went on to become the first African-American judge to be appointed to the United States Supreme Court.
5. The Brockovich Crusade
The real-life Erin Brockovich was a driving force behind the Anderson v. Pacific Gas and Electric class action suit regarding the contamination of the groundwater in Hinkley, California. Around 370 million gallons of waste containing chromium 6 was knowingly spread around the water sources of the Mojave Desert town by Pacific Gas before Erin Brockovich began investigating the cluster of illnesses appearing in her community.
4. Continued Chromium
The Anderson v. Pacific Gas lawsuit was settled for a record $333 million in 1996, but the case stayed has stayed in the headlines over the years because the plume of contamination has continued to spread, molding Hinkley into a ghost town over the years. Chromium 6 has long been linked to cancer, and those claims are now supported by evidence. This has led the State of California to be the first to recognize the link between the chemical and cancer.
3. Role Reversal
Though she may have preferred Goldie Hawn to play her in the film, Erin Brockovich still showed up on set and had a small role in the Academy Award-winning movie about the scandal. She makes an appearance as a waitress who serves the character Erin Brockovich and is credited as playing the character of “Julia.” I see what you did there, movie producers.
2. Pant Anguish
Known as the “pants lawsuit,” the Pearson v. Chung civil suit is now a widely held example for why tort reform may be necessary in the United States. This is because Roy L. Pearson Jr. filed a suit for $67 million against the owners of a dry cleaner that had lost his pants. The money was apparently to make up for all the stress that was caused after the dry cleaner did not live up to their claim of “satisfaction guaranteed.” Pearson himself was a lawyer and represented himself, and he was demanding the large sum of money in order to help other dissatisfied customers in the Washington DC area sue companies. He was so serious that he even broke down in tears in court. The judge didn't quite buy it, however, and he would lose the case.
1. The Doctors Role
It wasn’t until the Landeros v. Flood case of 1976 that doctors were encouraged to report child abuse that they encountered. Previously, many doctors would simply turn a blind eye to abuse, despite the fact that it was illegal. This case made it so that doctors could be forced to pay damages if it was found that they refused to report evident abuse. In this specific case, a doctor did not report the injuries of a child who was being abused by her parents and subsequently suffered more at their hands. Eventually, the police were called in and the parents fled the state, before finally being arrested.