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Lawsuits offer individual consumers an opportunity to strike powerful blows against products marketed with false or misleading claims. One way is by filing a class-action suit against the perpetrator. If the suit is successful, the named plaintiff—like all class members—will get a refund plus extra damages that are set by the applicable consumer fraud laws. Most permit a tripling of the award. In addition, punitive damages could be sizable, entitling each class member to a substantial additional award.
The named plaintiff typically gets an "incentive" award for standing up and being counted. The amount is up to the court but typically is geared toward making it worthwhile to serve as the lead plaintiff. Such awards are often large
Being a named plaintiff typically involves little time or effort. Named plaintiffs "lend" their name to the case, sign some papers that the lawyers draw up and submit to the court or to the other side, meet with the lawyer once or twice, give a short deposition (question-and-answer session under oath in a lawyer's office, not in court) to tell their story, and, in the unlikely event the case doesn't settle and does go to trial, show up to tell their story again, this time in court for a few hours. The lawyers do practically all of the work.
If the named plaintiff wants to withdraw later, another person can be substituted without much trouble. After the suit gets going, other people may offer to serve as a class representative. So it isn't really an ironclad commitment.
Class-action suits of this type are important. Government regulatory agencies lack the resources to attack all of the fraud they encounter. Individual citizens can help to protect our society by standing up and saying "enough is enough."
Quackwatch has set up a clearinghouse to introduce potential plaintiffs to attorneys with special interest in consumer protection lawsuits. If you have bought a homeopathic or supplement product in a store (not by mail) and concluded that it was misrepresented, please contact me by e-mail.
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This article was posted on September 19, 1999.