Tort law refers to civil cases in which one party did wrong to another and caused them to suffer harm or economic loss. Tort law serves to compensate victims rather than punish wrongdoers which is the focus of criminal law. In some cases, one defendant causes significant harm to a large number of individual victims.
When many people face significant damages from the same action or negligent inaction of a defendant, the courts save time and resources by making a decision on the issue in a mass tort rather than many separate court cases heard by multiple judges.
This may immediately bring to mind several well-known class action lawsuits such as those against Big Tobacco, Enron, and more recently—Marine Corp Base Camp Lejeune. However, a mass tort is not the same as a class action lawsuit, though both actions share similarities.
When very large corporations or government entities cause serious financial losses or physical injury to thousands of people, a single class action lawsuit takes the place of thousands of individual lawsuits against the same defendant. On the other hand, a mass tort occurs when a smaller number of plaintiffs allege harm from a common defendant, but the damages are more unique to each individual, such as their unique reactions to a harmful medication. In some cases, the plaintiffs in a mass tort are from the same geographic region, such as those suffering from contaminated water.
In a mass tort, the court considers each individual’s complaint separately. Each plaintiff must separately demonstrate to the court how the defendant harmed them and the damages they suffered. On the other hand, in a class action lawsuit, a single representative acts on behalf of the entire class of victims.
When one product or circumstance causes harm to many individuals, a mass tort can take the place of multiple actions against the same defendant. Many individual cases in different jurisdictions may be moved to a single multidistrict case so one judge hears from each individual in the case. Mass tort cases commonly resolve lawsuits against the following types of defendants:
In any of the above examples, each individual facing impacts by a common defendant pursues compensation for their individual damages in a mass tort case where each presents their case to a judge and jury or accepts an out-of-court settlement. The court evaluates each individual’s claim on its own merit rather than hearing from a single representative. Unlike a class action lawsuit with a one-size-fits-all judgment, in a mass tort, each plaintiff decides if they’d prefer to settle out of court or pursue a larger amount of compensation from a jury decision. Because the impacts on each individual vary widely in a mass tort compared to a class action lawsuit, no two settlements or jury awards for damages are exactly the same.
Because a class action lawsuit doesn’t allow each individual to have their voice heard in court, a mass tort keeps control of the case in each plaintiff’s hands. Rather than simply waiting for a single verdict for an entire class of people, the mass tort allows each individual to have a say in the amount of their settlement or jury award for damages.
If you think your case might fit into a mass tort, it’s important to speak to a personal injury attorney in Seattle about your claim to learn your options.
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