Why Class Actions are Vital for Protecting American Values

United we stand, divided we fall. This principle has been used in nearly every context imaginable, including the founding of the United States, the New Testament and the unionization of workers. The idea that there is strength in numbers is as old as civilization itself, and it is as true now as it has ever been.

In a legal context, unity is often manifested in class actions, which are lawsuits filed by a group of individuals or small businesses against larger interests, typically large companies with vast legal resources. Class actions are often the only way that people can seek justice after being wronged by a faulty product, a harmful business practice or a breach of civil rights.

A single individual filing a lawsuit against a large corporation has insufficient resources to combat the powerful interests of that corporation. By banding together with others who have experienced the same damages, they can pool resources and increase their chances of success in our legal system. Even in a class action, the large companies often have an advantage, but these lawsuits give plaintiffs a fighting chance.

Class actions can be extremely effective in protecting consumers, patients, small businesses and any other persons at a distinct disadvantage against the interests of a large, powerful entity. It's no surprise that these powerful entities have long wanted to do away with class actions. They have had many successes in this achieving this goal, and they are now hoping to further limit the ability of Americans to file class action lawsuits.

In March of 2017, the House of Representatives passed the Fairness in Class Action Litigation Act, legislation that would greatly limit the ability of people to file class actions. While the legislation faces an uncertain future, it represents a larger effort by big business to defang lawsuits filed by consumers in the United States.

The ability of citizens to file lawsuits, including class actions, against large companies has been under siege for years. For example, mandatory arbitration clauses often restrict the ability of employees to file lawsuits against employers. Consumer contracts can include language that bars class actions. In 2011, the Supreme Court ruled that companies were within their rights to include clauses that restrict consumers from filing these lawsuits. The following year, the number of companies including these bans in their contracts doubled.

Corporations and courts have been shaping our legal system to make civil litigation increasingly difficult but, as the Fairness in Class Action Litigation Act proves, our lawmakers are more than willing to throw their hat into the ring on these issues, too. The American Bar Association, labor organizations and civil rights groups are sounding the alarm about legislation against class actions, but it's not clear that the message is being received.

Class action lawsuits haven't just shaped consumer protection in the United States -- they have also contributed to the shaping of social policy. For example, Brown v. Board of Education and Roe v. Wade were both class actions. Civil rights, voting rights, prison reforms and a host of other important issues have been influenced greatly by class actions.

The issue of class actions sounds complicated to many Americans, and it is not a buzzworthy topic in the media or on campaign trails. But the push to render class actions useless could prove to be one of the most fundamental changes in our court system.

Public awareness of this issue is central to protecting the ability of individuals to band together to protect their own interests. Without unity in the fight to protect class actions, we will find ourselves divided in the fight against the interests of the most powerful entities in our society.