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In Your Court: Demystifying class action lawsuits

Published: Friday, Dec. 27, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

Every once in a blue moon, you may receive a “class action notice” in the mail. The notice will likely be several pages long and explain in small print the purpose of the class action. If you are like most people, you will flip to the end of the notice, fill out the proof of claim, mail it back with any requested documents and hope you’ll receive a check months or years later. 

But what is that “class action” you just joined? 

In simpler terms, a class action is a lawsuit by – or against – a large number of persons in situations where the relevant facts or law are common to everyone involved and it would be impracticable or inefficient for the courts to hear each individual case.   

The class action is civil in nature and can be brought in either the Illinois courts or the federal courts, depending on the relevant law or facts.   

In Illinois, the representative party typically can sue or be sued if:

1. The class has so many members that individual suits would be impracticable;

2. The questions regarding fact or law are common to the class and predominate any individual class member’s questions;

3. The representative party will protect the class interests both fairly and adequately;

4. And the class action is appropriate to adjudicate the controversy both fairly and efficiently. 

The “representative party” is the person or persons who have brought the class action. You’ll see them in the caption at the top of the notice with a phrase similar to “JOHN SMITH, Individually and on Behalf of All Others Similarly Situated.” 

You must take an affirmative action to join the class action. Most likely, you will be required to complete a “proof of claim and release,” provide requested supporting documentation (i.e., a receipt of purchase) and mail the items by a specific date. 

You have the option to exclude yourself from the class action and thereby allow yourself to bring your own suit. The instructions for exclusion are often on the notice’s inside cover. However, most class actions I’ve experienced have been for nominal amounts, and it would not make sense financially to seek redress personally. For instance, the most recent class action settlement I received was about $40. 

One item to note is that you may prejudice your rights if you do nothing. For instance, the most recent notice I received informed me that if I was a member of the class and did nothing, I would not be eligible to receive any compensation from the settlement, and I would give up my right to sue about any claims adjudicated in the class action suit. 

• Anthony Scifo is a resident of Kane County and an associate attorney with Shaw, Jacobs, Goostree and Associates P.C. in St. Charles, where he concentrates in divorce and family law, personal injury and wrongful death. His goal with this occasional column is to help educate the public regarding the court system and the law. Contact him with general legal questions at editorial@kcchronicle.com.

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