The Difference Between a Mass Tort and Class Action Lawsuits

Every year, roughly 40 million lawsuits are filed in the United States. These range in scope from civil court cases to major multi-billion-dollar endeavors. While the vast majority of lawsuits are small in nature and many are settled out of court, a relative handful of these cases are large-scale and involve dozens, hundreds or even millions of people.

In terms of large-scale lawsuits, there are two main types: mass tort and class action lawsuits. While there are some similarities between the two, there are notable differences as well. Ultimately, whether a mass tort or class action lawsuit is pursued depends on a number of factors.

Let’s examine the differences between these two types of lawsuits mass tort lawsuits vs class action lawsuits so you’ll have a better working knowledge of the legal process.

How Mass Torts Work

A mass tort case isn’t as well-known as class action lawsuits, which can create confusion for those when hearing the term. At its core, a mass tort case involves a large number of plaintiffs who are suing a single entity – however, the terms under which this is occurring is quite a bit different.

A mass tort case allows each plaintiff to sue under one claim despite having different grievances, monetary damage claims and other unique factors. Each person is therefore considered a distinct legal entity, which differs mass torts from class action lawsuits.

The usual goal of a mass tort is to achieve a settlement from the defendant. In many situations, this is the outcome of a mass tort claim. However, if a settlement cannot be reached for some or all of the plaintiffs in question, then each individual’s claim can go to trial.

Generally speaking, mass tort claims focus on a handful of particular injuries. These include damages caused by prescription drugs, illnesses caused by toxic working or living environments, and cases of product liability.

How Class Action Lawsuits Work

A class action lawsuit operates differently than a mass tort claim in a variety of ways. Perhaps most importantly, a class action lawsuit does not inherently represent individual interests. Instead, it seeks to account for the number of individuals who were impacted by an action or product, and then provide (usually) a set amount of damages to be evenly split among the plaintiffs.

Class action lawsuits do not allow for variance: this means that any plaintiffs who join a class action suit are joining because of a specific, shared injustice, damage or fault experienced due to the defendant’s behavior. As such and for legal purposes, all of the individual plaintiffs are functionally treated as a single, broader plaintiff.

Class action lawsuits are generally less complicated in terms of legal structure and procedural requirements, but a number of requirements exist. These include all affected individuals being notified prior and legal representatives having direct experience with lawsuits in the field relating to the case itself. Class actions also rarely receive certification if the amount an individual plaintiff could stand to earn exceeds the cost of procuring individual representation; this is a major reason why class action lawsuits exist.

Both mass torts and class action suits have their respective places in the legal system. Due to specific types of injuries, overall legal costs, the industries or sectors responsible for damages and the potential variance of damages across individual plaintiffs, one type of lawsuit or another may be required. Now that you know the key differences between the two lawsuits, you’ll undoubtedly have a better understanding of the legal system as it pertains to multi-plaintiff cases.