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The End of the Class-Action Carnival

The U.S. Supreme Court has taken aim at mass lawsuits and the huge settlements they generate. Big Business is smiling
The End of the Class-Action Carnival
Photo illustration by Crash!; Photographs by Getty Images (3)

F. Paul Bland Jr. brings class-action lawsuits for a living. Over the years he’s represented groups of plaintiffs in suits against payday lender Check ’n Go and financial institution Wachovia. He’s worried about business drying up. As a result of hostile Supreme Court rulings over the last several years, scores of mass consumer and employment suits that would have been viable a decade ago have been dismissed, says Bland, a senior attorney with Public Justice, a nonprofit in Washington. “People bring me cases against cable companies or big employers, and I say, ‘Forget it. It’s impossible. Not even worth trying.’ ”

The mass lawsuit—in which hundreds or even thousands of plaintiffs join together to go after a corporate defendant—is in deep trouble. Growing judicial skepticism toward such suits and toward the lucrative settlements they generate has caused plaintiffs’ attorneys to shy away from accepting lengthy, complicated cases. That’s tilting the legal playing field decisively in favor of Big Business—and as the Supreme Court reconvened on Oct. 7 for its 2013-14 term, trial lawyers are bracing for more setbacks.