What Kinds of Damages Can Be Sought In a Class Action Lawsuit?

Hands holding a bag of money out to a large group of wooden people.

Understanding the potential damages in a class action lawsuit is crucial for plaintiffs seeking collective justice and compensation for shared grievances. A class action lawsuit is a legal action brought by a representative plaintiff on behalf of a group of individuals who have been affected by the same issue. Class actions can provide a path to justice for individuals who might otherwise be unable to afford or effectively pursue legal action on their own.

When successful, these lawsuits can result in an award of damages. It is helpful to understand the damages in a class action lawsuit that may be available to you should you have a viable claim. Klein Lawyers is one of Canada’s leading class action litigation firms. Call us today at (604) 874-7171 to schedule a FREE consultation. We handle class action lawsuits across Canada.

Read More: Common Questions of Law or Fact in Class Action Lawsuits

What Are Damages?

Damages is the legal term for the monetary compensation awarded to claimants or plaintiffs who have suffered injuries or losses due to the wrongful conduct of another party. The claimants must be able to prove that the defendant had a duty of care, that they breached that duty, and that the breach was the cause of their losses.

What Damages Might Be Awarded in a Class Action Lawsuit?

In a class action lawsuit, the types and amount of damages sought can vary widely, depending on the specifics of the case and the jurisdiction. Here are the primary categories of damages that could be sought:

Compensatory Damages

These are intended to compensate class members for the actual harm suffered and put them back in the position they would have been in had the defendant’s wrongful conduct not occurred. They may include:

Special Damages

These can cover any quantifiable monetary losses resulting from the defendant’s conduct. Special damages in the context of a class action lawsuit are still based on quantifiable financial losses. But, due to the collective nature of the suit, the damages represent the aggregate or common losses suffered by the members of the class. These may include:

  • Medical expenses
  • Future medical bills
  • Lost wages
  • Loss of earning capacity
  • Repair or replacement of damaged property

In the Tainted Blood Scandal (Killough v. Canadian Red Cross Society) of the 1980s and 1990s, thousands of Canadians were infected with HIV and Hepatitis C through tainted blood transfusions. In the ensuing class action lawsuits, special damages were sought for the actual medical expenses incurred by the victims, including costs for treatments, medications, and hospitalizations, as well as lost income due to their inability to work.

Special damages in a class action lawsuit are particularly challenging since each class member’s damages must be ascertained, or at least a method must be devised to efficiently and fairly distribute the compensation. Often, the logistics of calculating and distributing these damages to individual class members can become complex. It’s essential for claimants in a class action to retain receipts, records, and any other evidence of their individual financial losses to ensure they receive appropriate compensation when special damages are awarded.

General Damages

Often referred to as non-pecuniary damages, these are intended to compensate for non-economic harms that are difficult to quantify because they don’t represent a direct financial loss. These may include:

  • Pain & suffering
  • Emotional distress
  • Disfigurement
  • Loss of enjoyment of life

In the RCMP Sexual Harassment Settlement (Merlo v. Canada), female officers and other staff members pursued a class action lawsuit against the RCMP, alleging that they sustained loss and damages due to sexual harassment, abuse, and discrimination endured during their time on the police force. A significant part of their claims related to the emotional and psychological harm they suffered, which would fall under general damages.

Punitive Damages

Unlike compensatory damages, punitive damages are not designed to compensate plaintiffs for their losses. Instead, they are intended to punish the defendant for particularly egregious, malicious, or intentional wrongdoing and to deter others from engaging in similar conduct. They are not tied to the actual harm suffered by the plaintiffs but are intended to send a strong message about the unacceptability of the defendant’s conduct.

While the primary focus of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement was compensatory in nature, there’s an argument to be made that the vast size of the settlement (over CAD 3.8 billion in total) had punitive elements, seeking to hold both the government and churches accountable for their roles in the significant harm caused to Indigenous communities.

It should be noted that Canadian courts are generally more restrained in awarding punitive damages compared to, say, the United States. Canadian jurisprudence stresses that punitive damages should only be awarded in situations where compensatory damages are insufficient to achieve the goals of punishment and deterrence. The amounts awarded are typically proportionate to the wrongdoing and the actual harm suffered by the plaintiffs.

Nominal Damages

Nominal damages are a small amount of compensation awarded to a plaintiff when a legal wrong has occurred but where the plaintiff hasn’t suffered any substantial harm or loss as a result. Essentially, they symbolize a moral victory or the recognition of a rights violation, even if there’s no significant financial loss to rectify.

In Canadian law, nominal damages are more often awarded in individual cases rather than class actions since the nature of class actions usually involves widespread harm or a significant issue affecting many individuals. However, nominal damages can theoretically be sought in class actions where the main objective is to obtain a declaration that rights have been infringed upon rather than substantial compensation.

While nominal damages play a less central role in class actions compared to other forms of lawsuits in Canada, they still hold symbolic importance in underscoring the principle that a legal wrong, even without substantial harm, merits recognition and remedy.

Statutory Damages

Some laws or statutes specify a fixed amount of damages to be awarded for each violation of the law. These are known as statutory damages, and they are particularly useful in situations where proving actual damages would be difficult or overly burdensome for the plaintiff.

The Copyright Act of Canada provides for statutory damages for copyright infringement. In the context of class actions, this can be seen in cases against entities or individuals engaged in large-scale unauthorized distribution of copyrighted materials. One example was the class action lawsuits against file-sharing websites or services facilitating the unauthorized download of music, movies, or software. The Copyright Act § 38.1(1) allows for statutory damages ranging from CAD 500 to CAD 20,000 per work infringed upon.

It’s important to note that while statutory damages provide an advantage by eliminating the need to prove the exact amount of harm, they are not automatically awarded. Courts will often consider factors such as the purpose of the statute, the nature of the violation, and the behaviour of both the plaintiff and defendant before determining appropriate amounts.

Injunctive Relief

While not a form of damages, class actions often seek injunctive relief in addition to or instead of monetary damages. Injunctive relief involves a court order that mandates or prohibits specific actions. In the context of class actions, this is usually sought to address systemic or widespread wrongful behaviours and to prevent them from continuing.

Over the years, class actions against tobacco companies in Canada—like Knight v. Imperial Tobacco Canada Limited— have sought compensation for health impacts and injunctive relief to restrict or alter how tobacco products are marketed and sold. These can include mandates on packaging, warnings, and advertising bans aimed at reducing the impact on public health.

To be clear—every class action lawsuit is different. The damages in a class action lawsuit will vary greatly depending on the specifics of your claim. The first step is to contact a skilled class action lawyer to discuss the potential of your case.

Why Choose Klein Lawyers in Your Class Action Lawsuit?

Klein Lawyers holds a distinguished position as one of the trailblazers for class actions within Canada. The firm’s managing partner, David Klein, played a pivotal role in establishing the foundation for class actions in British Columbia, taking the lead on the province’s first class action case, Harrington v. Dow Corning Corp. Over the years, the firm has maintained its momentum, championing precedent-setting cases throughout Canada.

Read More: Harrington v. Dow Corning Corporation—The First Certified Class Action in British Columbia

Contact the Class Action Litigators at Klein Lawyers

While class actions can provide a means for individuals to seek justice and compensation, they are complex and time-consuming cases. They require the skill and experience of a legal team well-versed in the intricacies of class action law.

If you believe you or a client might be part of a class that has been harmed by a common defendant, consulting with the experienced class action lawyers at Klein Lawyers would be a prudent first step. Contact us today for a FREE and confidential consultation. We’ve served clients in Vancouver, B.C. and across Canada.