Why Class Actions Don’t Always Protect Toxic Exposure Victims

power-plant Should Flint residents exposed to contaminated water file their own lawsuits? Or should they just rely on a class action filed on their behalf?

The short answer is: each individual should consult an attorney to discuss whether their rights would be adequately protected by a class action, or whether they should file their own case.

There are many reasons why class actions may not adequately protect the rights of people poisoned by PFOA or other toxic chemicals:

  1. Many cases are filed as class actions on behalf of persons exposed to toxic chemicals, but few of these cases are ever certified as a class action. If a class action is not certified, it will not protect the rights of people who would have been class members.
  2. Because the stakes are so high, companies sued in class actions fight tooth and nail to keep a them from being certified. Even when class actions are certified, they often take several years to do so. Individual cases can move through the courts more quickly. Class actions sometimes are certified only for limited claims. For instance, some cases have only certified class actions for property devaluation due to pollution. If people have also suffered personal injuries or interference with their quality of life, they will still need to bring their own lawsuits to be compensated for those injuries.
  3. Even when a class is certified for all issues, the class may not protect individuals who have unusual or unique injuries. Often, a “one size fits all” class settlement may not adequately compensate every victim. In such situations, victims with unique or more severe injuries may want to “opt out” of the class action to preserve their rights.

Our office had experience with one such case, where thousands of people in Lackawanna County, Pennsylvania were impacted by drinking water contaminated by chlorinated solvents. A class action settlement was entered into by another law firm.

We did not participate in that settlement.

Instead, we opted our hundreds of clients out of the class settlement. By suing for people as individuals, we obtained more substantial and individually tailored compensation. Our settlements better reflected the individual circumstances of the residents by factoring in

  1. the length of time they resided in the area and drank the water,
  2. the number of residents of each household,
  3. the ages of the residents–important since younger people are often at greater risk of harm from the exposure
  4. the specific levels of contamination in their drinking water, and
  5. the specific personal injuries, if any, that they were claiming as a result of the exposure.

Finally, it’s important to remember, even if a class action settlement is reached, you have the right to opt out of the settlement if you think you can do better on your own. That’s why getting individual legal advice is so important.