Why Class Actions Protect Predators and Hurt Sexual Assault Victims

Class actions are common in sexual abuse and assault lawsuits, especially against institutions such as schools and churches. A class action permits one or more plaintiffs to file a civil lawsuit on behalf of a larger group of plaintiffs, or a “class.” Class actions eliminate redundancies by allowing multiple plaintiffs to file a single lawsuit against a defendant for similar injuries. Although a class action may seem like the simplest way to bring a sexual assault civil lawsuit, it is actually a dangerous practice that can block survivors from achieving justice in multiple ways.

Class Actions Can Impose Strict Timetables and Shorter Statutes of Limitations

A class action comes with its own deadline to join – one that is typically shorter than the state’s overarching statute of limitations. If individuals who may have the right to join the class action do not come forward by the timetable set by the lawyers and courthouses in charge of the case, they may be permanently barred from filing a claim, including a private lawsuit against their abuser.

In a class action, the court sets a process for how potential class members must be notified. The courts will also set a deadline by which individuals must either join the class action or opt out. This time limit could be less than 90 days. If a member does not respond, he or she is automatically included, meaning that person will forfeit the right to file an individual lawsuit. In this way, a class-action lawsuit often shortens a survivor’s filing deadline.

Class Actions Deny Some Plaintiffs Recovery Without Their Knowledge

It can be difficult to get in touch with every person who may have the right to join a sexual abuse class action. Many survivors struggle with issues such as mental health problems, substance abuse, loss of family ties and employment instability – making them difficult to track down. If someone has changed residences a lot, for example, the notification may be sent to the wrong address. If a class member never receives a notice, he or she may not know about the class action and never have the opportunity to opt out.

Class Actions Can Take Away a Survivor’s Ability to Achieve Personal Closure

Sexual abuse and assault lawsuits are often about more than just money for survivors. Most victims come forward with hopes of finally achieving justice and closure by holding a wrongdoer accountable. In a class action, however, individual class members have little to no control over the legal process. They may never have the opportunity to have their voices heard in court or personally hold their abusers accountable. In this way, class actions can interfere with a survivor’s true goals for taking legal action.

Class Action Settlements Are Often Conducted in Secret, Protecting Abusers From Exposure

Another way in which sexual abuse survivors can achieve the closure that they need to move forward is through holding the perpetrator or institution publicly accountable. Individual civil lawsuits are a matter of public record, which can expose a pedophile or sex offender – as well as the institutions that ignored or covered up sexual abuse – to the public. Yet class-action lawsuits are most often negotiated in secret, with private settlements reached between the institution and the lawyers. This effectively protects predators from public accountability.

Class Actions Often Result in Much Less Financial Compensation for Survivors

Finally, a class action can hurt sexual assault victims by providing them with drastically less financial compensation than they might have received with individual lawsuits. This denies survivors fair and full compensation for the harm and emotional distress that they suffered, while the class-action lawyers may walk away with millions for negotiating the deal.

For example, in the recent case against former University of Southern California gynecologist George Tyndall, members of the class-action lawsuit received about $11,000 each, as it compensated all 15,000 to 17,000 students who were treated by Dr. Tyndall, whether or not they experienced sexual abuse themselves. The 710 plaintiffs who opted out of the class action, on the other hand, will receive about $1.2 million each – more than 100 times more.

Before you join a class action in a sexual abuse case, consult with a sexual abuse attorney for information about your specific rights and best interests as a survivor.