Class action lawsuits have xisted since the 13th century in medieval Eng- land. These lawsuits were
known as “group litigation” and involved
groups of people, such as villages or towns,
either suing or being sued. By the 1800s,
group litigation in England had become re-
placed by individual litigation and became
virtually nonexistent after 1850. However,
in the United States, class actions survived
due to the efforts of Justice Joseph Story in
the early 1800s, who held that all persons
interested must be made party to a suit, no
matter how numerous they may be.
Criticism of class actions include that
class members receive little or no relief.
While attorneys are paid large fees for
settling, class members often are awarded
small or no compensation. Other critics
argue that class actions are nothing more
than frivolous actions brought by greedy
lawyers and plaintiffs. And while some of
the largest class actions to date have set-
tlements of $7 billion, what happens when
part of that settlement relief comes in the
form of changing the behavior of not only
the defendant, but also changes the law?
Here are some class action lawsuits
that have changed the law.
Brown vs. Board of Education
In 1951, a class action was filed against
the Board of Education of the city of
Topeka, Kansas, in the United States
District Court for the District of Kansas.
The plaintiffs were 13 parents on behalf
of their 20 children, and the suit called
for the school district to reverse its policy of racial segregation. The three-judge
district court ruled in favor of the Board
of Education and cited the precedent
set in Plessy v. Ferguson of “separate
but equal.” The case was appealed to the
Supreme Court, and was combined with
four other cases from other districts
around the country.
In a unanimous decision by the Supreme Court, the Court held that the
“separate but equal” educational facilities are inherently unequal and violate
the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th
Amendment. The Court’s opinion led to
the desegregation of schools and is considered one of the defining moments in
the civil rights movement.
Lois E. Jenson v. Eveleth Taconite
Lois E. Jenson v. Eveleth Taconite Co.
was the first class action sexual harassment lawsuit in the United States. The
outcome of the case led to employers adopting anti-sexual harassment
policies, instituting sexual harassment
training, and proved women as a group
could prevail against sex-based employment discrimination. The case helped to
change workplace culture and emphasized the seriousness of hostile work environments and sexual harassment.
Lois Jenson began working at the
EVTAC mine in 1975. Along with other
women workers, she endured a continuous sequence of hostile behavior from
male workers including sexual harassment, crude language and drawings,
threats, and stalking. After she filed a
complaint in 1984 to the Minnesota
Department of Human Rights, her tires
were slashed in retaliation. In 1988, Jenson’s attorney filed a class action lawsuit
on behalf of Jenson and the other women who worked for the mining company.
The case would continue for 10 years
until 1988 when, just before the jury trial
was set to begin, the suit settled out of
court and all 15 women were awarded
monetary damages. The women’s story
became the basis for the movie North
Country, starring Charlize Theron.
The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill
In March 1989, the Exxon Valdez supertanker ran aground in Alaska, spilling
millions of gallons of oil into the Prince
William Sound. The spill affected tens
of thousands of people and more than
1,300 miles of coastline. A class action
lawsuit against Exxon was filed for the
fishermen, Alaska Natives, and landowners whose livings were affected by
the spill. Fishermen saw their incomes
fall and those who met their dietary
needs through hunting and fishing were
unable to do so, as central fishing and
hunting areas were decimated.
The Power of
Change the Law
by Shanna Lisberg