Brockovich and Beyond: Five Famous Class Action Lawsuits
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).