What is a Class Action Lawsuit?

A class action, also known as a class action lawsuit, class suit, or representative action, is a type of lawsuit where one of the parties is a group of people who are represented collectively by a member of the group. The class action originated in the United States and is still widely used. 

In a typical class action lawsuit, a plaintiff sues a defendant or several defendants on behalf of a group, or class, of absent parties. This differs from a traditional lawsuit, where one of the parties sues another party for redress of a wrong, and all parties are present in court. Class actions are most common where the allegations usually involve at least 40 people who have been injured by the same defendant or defendants in the same way. Instead of each damaged person bringing his or her own lawsuit, the class action allows all the claims of all class members to be resolved in a single proceeding through the efforts of the representative plaintiffs and appointed class counsel. 

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As mentioned, in a class action, the plaintiff seeks court approval to litigate on behalf of a group of similarly situated persons. Not every plaintiff looks for, or could obtain such approval. As a procedural alternative, plaintiff’s counsel may attempt to sign up every similarly situated person that counsel can find as a client. Plaintiff counsel can then join the claims of all of these persons in complaint, called a “mass action”, looking to have the same efficiencies and economic leverage as if a class had been certified. 

Because mass actions operate outside the detailed procedures laid out for class actions, they can pose special difficulties for both plaintiffs, defendants and the court. For example, settlement of class action follows a predictable path of negotiation with class counsel and representatives, court scrutiny, and notice. There may not be a way to uniformly settle all of the many claims brought via a mass action, Some states permit plaintiff’s counsel to settle for all the mass action plaintiffs according to a majority vote, for example, other states such as New Jersey, require each plaintiff to approve the settlement of that plaintiff’s own individual claims.

This type of class action complaint is being used in the opioid epidemic that is sweeping the country. By way of background, an estimated 59,000 Americans die each year due to drug overdose, which has become the leading cause of death for adults under 50. Over the last 15 years, the number of Americans who have died from a drug overdose has tripled, with approximately 60% of those deaths involving opioid drugs like OxyContin and Fentanyl. 

In addition, beyond the enormous emotional devastation the opioid epidemic has placed on the friends and families of addicts and overdose victims, this epidemic has had a massive financial impact on government agencies. An estimated $75 billion per year is spent on public healthcare, treatment facilities, criminal justice, jail expenses, and law enforcement efforts relate to reacting to and stopping the opioid epidemic. The number of opioid prescriptions in the United States is the world’s largest consumer of opioids, accounting for 81% of the world’s supply of oxycodone and nearly 100% of the world’s supply of hydrocodone. 

As in other class action lawsuits, the opioid litigation is being handled as Multi-District Litigation (MDL). The complaints filed which include both individuals and governmental agencies, allege that the pharmaceutical distributors failed to abide by the Federal Controlled Substances Act by not notifying United States Drug Enforcement Agency(DEA) of dubious opioid purchases, including orders of unusual pattern, frequency, or size. The complaints also allege that the manufacturers exaggerated the benefits of the pain relievers and failed to disclose the true addictive nature of the drugs. 

The defendants in opioid class action lawsuits include but our not limited to:  McKesson Corporation, Cardinal Health, Amerisource Bergen, Purdue Pharma,Janssen Pharmaceuticals (a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson) Endo International, Teva Pharmaceutical, Allergan (formerly Actavis) , Watson Pharmaceuticals, Covidien, Johnson & Johnson, CVS, Walgreens and Rite Aid.

As to specific damages, governmental agencies seek: building and maintaining treatment facilities, Medicaid reimbursement, law enforcement and medical personnal reimbursement, and reimbursement for costs of prosecution and jails.

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Dennis P. Sawan

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Christopher A. Sawan


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