The Rapid Increase in Consumer Class Actions Involving Health

Class action cases regarding all aspects of our health, from foods to medical devices, have been trending sharply upward. Is that good? Are these class action cases worthwhile to society, not just to the claimants' lawyers, who typically get large fees for their knowledge and labor?

Consider a recent Proctor & Gamble settlement. The suit claimed that P&G's toothpaste for sensitive teeth, advertised to give fast pain relief, was no different from one of its other toothpastes that sold at a lower price. Such claims are typically brought in court based on a state's deceptive and unfair trade practices act. P&G agreed to pay all persons in the US who had bought the toothpaste a full refund of up to $6.99.

In a similar case, Kellogg settled a 4-year-old class action case in which it was accused of falsely advertising that its Mini-Wheats cereal improved children's attention span and memory to a degree not supported by the evidence. What did purchasers get? $5 per box of cereal purchased up to a maximum of 3 boxes. The total settlement for the class of all consumers was $4 million, so the team of lawyers was probably paid about $1.6 million for its members' 4 years of work.

On the other end of the spectrum are product liability class action cases involving huge damages. A short time ago, Johnson & Johnson agreed to pay billions of dollars for defects in its DePuy hip implant devices, amounting to about $300,000 on average paid to each person damaged by the implant who needed to have another hip replacement surgery.

So back to the original question: are these class actions worthwhile to society, not just to the lawyers? You'll have to decide that. The issue is whether manufacturers should be free to sell poorly engineered and falsely advertised products to you without accountability, or whether their shoddy practices will be made so painfully expensive in court as to stop their conduct.

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