Many historians and legal scholars see the class action lawsuit as a particularly, or even peculiarly, American phenomenon. Indeed, while America has thousands of class actions each year, and has had a class action model in place for well over a hundred years, many countries have only adopted such a model in the last couple of decades–often based directly on America’s system. Maybe Americans’ litigiousness doesn’t strike you as all that surprising. But within the history of the class action lawsuit, it might. 

Medieval Group Litigation

The first part of C. Yeazell’s seminal From Medieval Group Litigation to the Modern Class Action (1987) explores the way in which medieval courts dealt with aggregate litigation, within a specifically English history. Back in the 11th century, group identity largely defined one’s life (and not just on the internet). People were grouped in villages, into guilds, into parishes, monasteries, and so forth. 

Feudal society itself was largely stratified into strict classes of people–serfs and lords or nobles. So it would make sense that group litigation would emerge in the English court system. In fact, it was hardly questioned. 

One famous example of early group litigation comes from medieval France, so not cited by Yeazell, when the wealthy villagers of Rosny-sous-Bois were deemed serfs by their king and gifted away to a monastery. But these “serfs” felt they were not serfs of the king to begin with. Hence, they couldn’t simply be deemed serfs of somebody else. 

For the next 47 years, they appealed to judges, to the papacy, and again to the papacy when there was a new Pope. Eventually, the suit was dropped with the men buying their freedom from the monks–ironically, kind of the opposite of many class action settlements today. 

American Individualism Meets Class Action

As feudal society gave way to a capitalist one, more focused on individuals than groups, so too did group litigation decline. It was almost unheard of by the mid 1800s. In America, however, this would start to change. Oddly, many trace the United States’ resurrection of the class action lawsuit to a single individual: Supreme Court Associate Justice Joseph Story. 

In his 1820 decision in West v. Randall, Justice Story wrote, “It is a general rule in equity, that all persons materially interested, either as plaintiffs or defendants in the subject matter of the bill ought to be made parties to the suit, however numerous they may be.” Such logic was taken up in further Supreme Court cases and outlined in Congress’s Federal Equity Rules, until finally winding up in the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure in 1938. 

Today, you will likely be dealing with Rule 23 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, which has been the source of much controversy since reforms were made in the 1960s. Rule 23 has been and remains controversial: among other things, it binds all members of the class, minus those who specifically took action to opt out, to the outcome of the case, even though they have no say in who is representing them and their interests. 

The Digital Age 

In the last several years, the internet and social media have played a role in facilitating class actions, as they allow for the efficient organization of large groups of potential plaintiffs. Class actions related to data breaches and privacy violations have become increasingly common. Large settlements against companies like Facebook, Amazon, and Google may not have reached as many plaintiffs without the connective power of the internet.

Class action lawsuits have evolved over time, and will continue to evolve with new technology and developments in jurisprudence.

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