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3.6 When Can Someone Bring a Lawsuit?

Learning Objectives

  1. Explain the requirements for standing to bring a lawsuit in US courts.
  2. Describe the process by which a group or class of plaintiffs can be certified to file a class action case.

Almost anyone can bring a lawsuit, assuming they have the filing fee and the help of an attorney. But the court may not hear it, for a number of reasons. There may be no case or controversy, there may be no law to support the plaintiff’s claim, it may be in the wrong court, too much time might have lapsed (a statute of limitations problem), or the plaintiff may not have standing.

Case or Controversy: Standing to Sue

Article III of the US Constitution provides limits to federal judicial power. For some cases, the Supreme Court has decided that it has no power to adjudicate because there is no “case or controversy.” For example, perhaps the case has settled or the “real parties in interest” are not before the court. In such a case, a court might dismiss the case on the grounds that the plaintiff does not have “standing” to sue.

For example, suppose you see a sixteen-wheel moving van drive across your neighbor’s flower bed, destroying her beloved roses. You have enjoyed seeing her roses every summer, for years. She is forlorn and tells you that she is not going to raise roses there anymore. She also tells you that she has decided not to sue, because she has made the decision to never deal with lawyers if at all possible. Incensed, you decide to sue on her behalf. But you will not have standing to sue because your person or property was not directly injured by the moving van. Standing means that only the person whose interests are directly affected has the legal right to sue.

The standing doctrine is easy to understand in straightforward cases such as this but is often a fairly complicated matter. For example, can fifteen or more state attorneys general bring a lawsuit for a declaratory judgment that the health care legislation passed in 2010 is unconstitutional? What particular injury have they (or the states) suffered? Are they the best set of plaintiffs to raise this issue? Time—and the Supreme Court—will tell.

Class Actions

Most lawsuits concern a dispute between two people or between a person and a company or other organization. But it can happen that someone injures more than one person at the same time. A driver who runs a red light may hit another car carrying one person or many people. If several people are injured in the same accident, they each have the right to sue the driver for the damage that he caused them. Could they sue as a group? Usually not, because the damages would probably not be the same for each person, and different facts would have to be proved at the trial. Plus, the driver of the car that was struck might have been partially to blame, so the defendant’s liability toward him might be different from his liability toward the passengers.

If, however, the potential plaintiffs were all injured in the same way and their injuries were identical, a single lawsuit might be a far more efficient way of determining liability and deciding financial responsibility than many individual lawsuits.

How could such a suit be brought? All the injured parties could hire the same lawyer, and she could present a common case. But with a group numbering more than a handful of people, it could become overwhelmingly complicated. So how could, say, a million stockholders who believed they were cheated by a corporation ever get together to sue?

Because of these types of situations, there is a legal procedure that permits one person or a small group of people to serve as representatives for all others. This is the class action. The class action is provided for in the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (Rule 23) and in the separate codes of civil procedure in the states. These rules differ among themselves and are often complex, but in general anyone can file a class action in an appropriate case, subject to approval of the court. Once the class is “certified,” or judged to be a legally adequate group with common injuries, the lawyers for the named plaintiffs become, in effect, lawyers for the entire class.

Usually a person who doesn’t want to be in the class can decide to leave. If she does, she will not be included in an eventual judgment or settlement. But a potential plaintiff who is included in the class cannot, after a final judgment is awarded, seek to relitigate the issue if she is dissatisfied with the outcome, even though she did not participate at all in the legal proceeding.

Key Takeaway

Anyone can file a lawsuit, with or without the help of an attorney, but only those lawsuits where a plaintiff has standing will be heard by the courts. Standing has become a complicated question and is used by the courts to ensure that civil cases heard are being pursued by those with tangible and particular injuries. Class actions are a way of aggregating claims that are substantially similar and arise out of the same facts and circumstances.

Exercise

  1. Fuchs Funeral Home is carrying the body of Charles Emmenthaler to its resting place at Forest Lawn Cemetery. Charles’s wife, Chloe, and their two children, Chucky and Clarice, are following the hearse when the coffin falls on the street, opens, and the body of Charles Emmenthaler falls out. The wife and children are shocked and aggrieved and later sue in civil court for damages. Assume that this is a viable cause of action based on “negligent infliction of emotional distress” in the state of California and that Charles’s brother, sister-in-law, and multiple cousins also were in the funeral procession and saw what happened. The brother of Charles, Kingston Emmenthaler, also sees his brother’s body on the street, but his wife, their three children, and some of Charles’s other cousins do not.

    Charles was actually emotionally closest to Kingston’s oldest son, Nestor, who was studying abroad at the time of the funeral and could not make it back in time. He is as emotionally distraught at his uncle’s passing as anyone else in the family and is especially grieved over the description of the incident and the grainy video shot by one of the cousins on his cell phone. Who has standing to sue Fuchs Funeral Home, and who does not?