While many in the media vilify class action lawsuits without much inkling of what they actually do, these lawsuits have the power to change lives and history. These mass legal actions are not only a way to effect change in society, but they also hold corporations and even governments to account. Some of the most impactful legal decisions in history resulted in verdicts or settlements that have widespread impacts both on individual legal rights and society as a whole. Here are six class-action lawsuits that have had large impacts on the history of this country.
Brown v. Board of Education
While most people only remember the name of the plaintiff, Brown was only the named plaintiff and there were several others who had joined the lawsuit against multiple school districts. This was considered a class action because all of the plaintiffs faced the same operative set of facts, namely that schools were segregated and they could not receive an appropriate and equivalent public education. Thurgood Marshall argued the case before the Court back when he was a trailblazing civil rights lawyer. Everyone remembers the result in this case. Chief Justice Warren’s ruling set the stage for the civil rights movement and desegregation of schools although progress was slow to come by in the years after the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling.
Hinckley Groundwater Contamination
Based on the title listed above, nobody would be able to identify this case. However, when you know of the driving force behind the case, you will be able to identify this as the case that inspired the movie, Erin Brockovich. Based on the stirring story from the movie, countless future lawyers were inspired to go to law school. In the case, the Pacific Gas and Electric Company dumped chemicals that contaminated the groundwater and sickened numerous people. Brockovich was a law clerk who investigated the contamination. What she found led to a class-action lawsuit against the power company. PG&E eventually settled the case for $333 million. Numerous other lawsuits followed this one that led to other nine-figure settlements. While PG&E is required to remediate the problem, the contamination is still present in the town’s groundwater.
BP Deepwater Horizon
Many can remember the powerlessness that we felt as a country when a massive oil spill gushed for days and severely damaged the ecosystem of the Gulf of Mexico. Fisherman and those who owned property on the shore suffered the effects of nearly five million barrels of oil that fouled the Gulf waters. The well leaked for several years and the cleanup lingered for even longer as marine wildlife in the Gulf died at a record rate. The explosion that caused the spill was partially as a result of defective concrete on the rig. BP was charged criminally for its actions that led to spill and for lying to Congress. Between fines, a settlement with the states, payment of claims and cleanup efforts, BP has spent upwards of $50 million as a result of its conduct that led to the disaster.
Enron Securities Fraud
Before there were the strict accounting controls known as Sarbanes Oxley, there was a litany of corporate accounting standards in the early part of the 2000s. The most famous of these was Enron, when the company inflated the balance sheet to make the company appear to be profitable. When the fraud came to light, the company’s stock became worthless and the company went bankrupt. Shareholders lost tens of billions of dollars as Enron was valued at over $60 billion at its peak. Some of the company’s executives received long jail sentences, but that did not make the shareholders whole after their steep losses. The $7.2 billion settlement of the class action was one of the largest securities fraud settlements of recent years. The fraud perpetrated by Enron executives laid the groundwork for stronger laws that have helped Americans keep faith in the stock market economy.
Fen-Phen Diet Pills
In the late 1990s, two diet drugs were supposed to change the way that we lose weight in this country. However, this proved too good to be true and these diet drugs turned deadly. Thousands of people suffered damage to their hearts from the diet pills and dozens died of heart attacks. Fen-Phen was one of the largest pharmaceutical product liability mass torts of all time. Tens of thousands of lawsuits were filed and the lawsuits were settled for nearly $5 billion. At the time that the case settled, it surpassed the breast implant class action as the largest pharmaceutical class action settlement of all-time. The Fen-Phen litigation proved to plaintiffs that it was possible to receive justice when a drugmaker put a product onto the market that caused as severe and widespread harm as Fen-Phen.
Volkswagen Auto Emissions
Volkswagen attempted one of the more audacious schemes of all-time in auto manufacturing when it installed special software in its vehicle to cheat on emissions tests. When the car was undergoing its emissions exam, the software switched on and the car then reduced its emissions as a clean diesel engine while functioning as a polluting engine after the car was driven out of the testing facility. Volkswagen got caught and was fined billions of dollars for its action. Moreover, the company faced one of the largest class-action lawsuits ever. The company was responsible for retrofitting over 11 million vehicles with clean diesel engines. Volkswagen faced a variety of legal actions brought by the government, customers, and investors as a result of its deception. Eventually, the company settled all of the cases for over $15 billion. This class action showed that companies must be environmentally responsible when they market their products in a certain way and that concerted corporate malfeasance will result in severe penalties and liability.
Not only do class action lawsuits help to make defrauded and harmed customers whole, but they can also have various historical and social utility. Attorneys who file and prosecute these suits are helping to improve the world, and the results of the above class actions show the importance of such litigation.