Class-Action Lawsuits

January 3, 1973

Report Outline
Group Action in Consumer Litigation
Origins and Growth of Class-Action Law
Efforts to Expand Consumer Protection
Special Focus

Group Action in Consumer Litigation

Varied Goals of Recent Class-Action Lawsuits

Class-Action Lawsuits have traditionally been a broad avenue for the redress of all sorts of social wrongs. They have been used, with varying degrees of success, by groups fighting for minority rights, women's rights, prisoners' rights, for fair apportionment of electoral districts, for removal of objectionable television programming, for a more equitable financing of public schools, and for protection of the environment— among many other things. With the emergence of the consumer movement in the mid-Sixties, advocates soon turned to the class-action suit to fight shoddy merchandise, improper selling techniques and deceptive advertising. If, as many believe, the Seventies are to be the decade of consumerism, the class-action lawsuit may become the most effective weapon available to the movement. Before that happens, however, the stringent rules governing the use of class actions will have to be liberalized over the protests of an aroused business community.

A class-action lawsuit is defined as one brought by an individual or several persons in their own behalf and in behalf of “all others similarly situated.” Thousands of class actions are filed every year— so many, in fact, that the Administrative Office of the United States Courts has expressed “growing concern” over the proliferation of this type of lawsuit. More than 3,100 class-action civil suits of all kinds were pending, as of June 30, 1972, in federal district courts. An unknown but probably larger number were pending in state courts.

Class action has been described as “judicial populism” and “super law” by those who defend the device. It permits hundreds, thousands or even millions of similarly harmed individuals to combine their claims in a single lawsuit. The technique thus provides consumers with a direct judicial remedy against consumer fraud. Professor Benjamin Kaplan of Harvard, a leading authority on class-action litigation, has said its “historical mission” has been to “take care of the smaller guy.” Class actions allow consumers to spread the cost of litigation—a major consideration since “Most disputes between merchants and individual consumers involve less than $300,” according to Bess Myerson Grant, consumer commissioner for the City of New York. Mrs. Grant has written that the law, without the availability of class actions, “is often hypocritical as far as the consumer is concerned.” “It tells him to spend thousands of dollars on a lawsuit to recover hundreds of dollars which he lost in a swindle.”

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