How do you join a class-action lawsuit?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Feb. 23 2010 4:55 PM

Class Warfare

Do you qualify for the class-action lawsuit against Google?

Google Buzz.
Google Buzz

Firms in San Francisco and Washington, D.C., filed a class-action lawsuit against Google last week, alleging that the online giant's new Buzz service violated its users' privacy by sharing personal information without their consent. How do you join a class action lawsuit?

By doing nothing. Joining a class-action lawsuit is a so-called "opt-out" process, not "opt-in." In other words, if you qualify as part of the class—a group of individuals with shared grievances—you're included unless you specifically ask not to be. In this case, the group includes every Gmail user whose account was linked to Buzz.

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After filing the initial complaint, the plaintiff (or plaintiffs) must file a motion to have their class "certified." That is, a judge must agree that there's a sufficiently large group with a uniform grievance. Next he'll order a "notice." The plaintiff's lawyers will send letters directly to the class members by mail or publish notices in newspapers. They may also broadcast the notice in areas where class members are likely to see or hear them. (In the Google case, the simplest solution—although not necessarily a legally feasible one—is to email every user.) The notice must describe the complaint, who qualifies as part of the class, and how to exclude yourself from that class—in case, say, you want to file a separate suit.

If the plaintiffs win, either after a trial or through a settlement, then the "claims process" begins. In order to receive money, class members must submit a claim form outlining who they are and proving that they suffered because of the defendant's actions. For example, the claimants in the class-action suit against Merck, the producer of the anti-inflammatory medication Vioxx, had to prove that they took the drug and were injured by it. *  The injury need not be physical—it could be financial. For instance, car owners have sued Toyota in at least 30 states after the carmaker's massive recall, claiming that it depreciated the value of their cars. A similar case in 2008 yielded $500 vouchers for every Ford owner whose car was devalued by the company's tire recall.

How do plaintiffs become plaintiffs in the first place? Sometimes they approach a law firm with their complaint, and the firm takes their case. But usually it's the other way around. When a massive product recall occurs, or some other large-scale corporate embarrassment, law firms that specialize in class actions will seek out people who have suffered injury as a result, and build a case around them. If different firms around the country are pursuing similar class action suits, those cases will often get consolidated and tried in a single federal court—a procedure called multidistrict litigation. It's rare, however for a class-action case to actually go to trial. The vast majority of class action suits that aren't immediately dismissed get settled out of court.

Explainer thanks Gary Mason of the Mason Law Firm and Edward Sherman of Tulane University.

Correction, Feb. 24, 2010: This article incorrectly identified Vioxx as a cholesterol medication. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)

Become a fan of Slate and the Explainer on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.

Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.

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