Mass Torts vs. Class Action: What Is the Difference?

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A lawsuit can be a relatively simple process involving one individual suing another, one individual suing a company (and vice versa), or one company suing another company. In such lawsuits, the legal issues between the two parties are unique to them, and a judge must carefully assess the case before making a judgment based on the applicable law.

However, in some cases, a group of people may need to come together to sue a big corporation to stand a chance of recovering damages. In such cases, the plaintiffs will have similar complaints against the defendant.

So, what is the right way of approaching such cases? Do you join a class action lawsuit that is already in progress, or do you pursue multi-district litigation (MDL)? What about mass torts? How do they come into play?

This post outlines the key differences between mass torts, class action lawsuits, and multi-district litigation. Understanding the difference between the three will help you choose the best option for your case.

What Is a Class Action Lawsuit?

A class action lawsuit basically occurs when a group of people representing the interests of a relatively large number of people files a legal claim against the same defendant. The plaintiffs in class action lawsuits must have similar grievances and usually seek compensation for injuries suffered against a large corporation.

The plaintiffs named in a class action lawsuit are known as class representatives and front the interests of a single group of victims. As such, the court treats all class action plaintiffs as a single entity rather than different individuals.

Individuals who join a class action lawsuit as plaintiffs still have a choice to opt out of the claim and seek their own legal counsel. A court must pass a motion before the class representatives are allowed to represent the entire group of complainants.

The outcome in a class action lawsuit applies to everyone who was part of the claim uniformly, including those who didn’t take part in filing the claim. The primary purpose of class action lawsuits is to lower the number of individual lawsuits for the same grievance.

Generally, the compensation in class action lawsuits can be relatively small since the court will most likely have to divide the settlement amount among many individuals.

Class Action Requirements

Class action lawsuits don’t require every prospective plaintiff to sign on before the case starts. However, there are important requirements for notifying potential plaintiffs about the lawsuit.

This is done by publishing a notice in newspapers or other media outlets that would reasonably reach potential plaintiffs. The court will also appoint a class representative who would be responsible for handling the case on behalf of all the potential plaintiffs.

Some of the specific guidelines that each class action lawsuit must comply with include:

  • The class size must be large enough that filing individual lawsuits is impractical.
  • The legal issues represented in the lawsuit must be common across the class.
  • All members of the lawsuit share the claims and defenses of the class representative.
  • The class representative can adequately represent and protect the interests of the entire class.

What Is a Mass Tort?

A mass tort is similar to a class action lawsuit in the sense that it represents the interests of a large group of people against a common defendant. The key difference between mass torts and class action lawsuits is that each plaintiff in a mass tort retains their own legal counsel.

This means they can pursue their own individual cases even though they are part of the larger group lawsuit. As such, the compensation in mass tort cases can be higher since each plaintiff is fighting for their own damages.

Another key difference between class action lawsuits and mass torts is that the court doesn’t have to certify a mass tort. It means that the case can proceed without appointing class representatives.

The plaintiffs in a mass tort can also choose to opt out of the case at any time and pursue their own legal action.

How Does Mass Tort Work?

Typically, mass tort actions begin as individual lawsuits. However, judges combine these cases into one single case to streamline the entire litigation process and save the judicial system’s valuable resources.

In large cases, courts are free to consolidate lawsuits spread across different jurisdictions into one lawsuit. As long as the claims share a common act of harm by the same defendant, the court could join the lawsuits together into a mass tort or multi-district litigation discussed below.

Despite the consolidation, each plaintiff remains an individual party to the case with all the legal rights that come with it. Each complainant retains their right to have an attorney of their choosing but must work within the provided framework of having multiple complainants in the same lawsuit.

In some cases, when a claim doesn’t meet the criteria of being filed as a class action, it can be converted into a mass tort. This is because a mass tort will still be viable even when there are differences between each plaintiff’s grievances.

Mass torts can take a long time to conclude (mostly years), but they usually result in a significant financial settlement. Unlike class actions, each plaintiff in mass tort cases has a right to refuse the settlement offered.

What Is Multi-District Litigation?

Multi-district litigation (MDL) is a type of lawsuit that consolidates multiple individual cases into one. The cases included in an MDL must share common legal issues and defendants. One example of a current and ongoing MDL is the Bard PowerPort MDL, numerous patients who received fluids through defective port catheters manufactured by Bard Access Systems, a subsidiary of Becton, Dickinson, and Company, are pursuing product liability lawsuits against this company.

The purpose of an MDL is to streamline the litigation process by having one judge oversee all the cases. This way, there’s no need to have separate trials for each case.

An MDL is different from a class action lawsuit in the sense that each plaintiff still retains their own legal counsel. As such, each plaintiff can pursue their own individual cases even as they are part of the larger group lawsuit.

The key difference between an MDL and a class action lawsuit is that the court doesn’t have to certify an MDL. This means that the case can proceed without appointing class representatives.

How Does Multi-District Litigation Work?

Multi-district litigation usually starts when there are a large number of individual lawsuits filed against the same defendant. These lawsuits must share common legal issues.

The court will then consolidate all the cases into one and appoint one judge to oversee the entire litigation process. The goal is to save time and resources by having one judge preside over all the cases instead of having separate trials for each case.

One of the benefits of an MDL is that it allows plaintiffs to pool their resources together. This way, they can better afford the costs of litigation.

Another benefit is that it helps plaintiffs get their day in court faster since all the cases are consolidated into one.

However, one of the downsides of an MDL is that it can take years to resolve. This is because there are often thousands of individual cases that need to be litigated.

Another downside is that each plaintiff still has their own lawyer. This can sometimes lead to conflicts between different attorneys.

Should I File for Class Action, Mass Tort, or MDL?

Sometimes, figuring out whether to join a class action, MDL, or mass tort lawsuit can be quite challenging. So, if you have been hurt by a drug, product, or corporation, it is important to speak with an experienced personal injury attorney.

During the initial consultation, the lawyer will assess the circumstances surrounding your case and determine if an existing class action lawsuit already covers your injury. If that is the case, you may already be entitled to compensation.

If your case isn’t a candidate for an existing class action lawsuit, it may be a candidate for mass litigation. Your attorney will assess the facts of your case to see if it meets the criteria for filing a mass tort lawsuit.

If your case isn’t suitable for class action or mass tort, your lawyer may still recommend pursuing an MDL. This is because an MDL can provide you with many of the same benefits as a class action or mass tort.

Ultimately, the decision of whether to file for class action, mass tort, or MDL will depend on the facts of your case. So, it’s important to speak with an experienced attorney who can help you assess your options and make the best decision for your case.


A class action, mass torts, and MDL are all ways of handling a lawsuit when many people have been injured by the same product or action.

Though they share some similarities, there are important distinctions between these types of lawsuits that you should know before deciding which one is right for you.

We hope you have learned the differences between the three and can make a more informed decision about your case.


This article is written by Naphtal. He is the brand manager at Legal Giant and a highly experienced content writer. Legal Giant is a leading lawyer referral site with clients all over the U.S. When Naphtal is not working, he enjoys spending time with his son and exploring nature.


    • 2 years ago (Edit)

    […] a judge, although some cases may go to trial before a jury. In a civil law case, the losing party may be required to pay damages to the winning party. In some cases, the court may also order one party to take or refrain from […]

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