What is the difference between a class action lawsuit and a mass tort?

Like class action lawsuits, mass torts join together a group of plaintiffs in a legal action against a defendant, and they are a streamlined means of litigating numerous cases that share common issues.

But unlike a class action—which treats the entire class as a single plaintiff—each plaintiff in a mass tort files his or her lawsuit separately and maintains an individual case. This generally allows mass tort plaintiffs to recover damages that are more in line with their actual losses, rather than being bound by the overall settlement or verdict.

Mass torts generally involve large claims for personal injury allegedly caused by defective drugs or defective products. Class actions typically involve claims for purely economic losses; they rarely deal with injury claims. This is because the same drugs and products tend to result in significantly different injuries that are unsuitable to group together in a single class.

The individual claims of a mass tort are grouped together for pretrial proceedings (the period when lawyers gather and share information), then are returned to the jurisdictions where they were originally filed for trial. A mass tort that stretches across many federal jurisdictions is known as multidistrict litigation (MDL).