Class action lawsuits are very different from the kinds of legal cases you might hear about day to day. Instead of just one person suing, or a few people suing separately, for some kind of wrongdoing, class actions provide a way for an entire group of people who have suffered similar damages from the negligence or misconduct of the same defendant to pursue justice without the burden of taking individual legal action.
Some class action lawsuits revolve around serious injuries – often to scores of people, and not just one individual or a few people – while others involve violations of legal or consumer rights. Because so many people are affected, and because corporate or government wrongdoing on a grand scale is often involved, it is not uncommon for class actions to receive national or even international media attention.
History of Class Action Law in Canada
Class actions have their root in centuries-old English common law, but the precedent is relatively recent in Canada. In 1978, Quebec became the first province to add provisions specifically addressing class actions to its Code of Civil Procedure. Ontario was the next to institute class action legislation in 1993 with its Class Proceedings Act, followed by British Columbia in 1995 with legislation of the same name. Today, except for Prince Edward Island, all provinces in Canada have some sort of class action legislation.
Despite the relatively recent advent of class actions in Canada, these cases are important not only as a means of compensating significant numbers of people who have suffered from the same violation, but as a tool for social change. Historically, mass actions have exposed gross negligence, misconduct, and inequitable policies of major corporations, government agencies, and other parties that may have avoided accountability without multiple individuals banding together to take on a much larger foe.
To get a more complete picture of the impact of class action lawsuits, let’s take a look at five of the largest class action verdicts and settlements in Canadian legal history:
1. Tobacco Class Action Lawsuit
Details of the case:
Class actions have long been an effective legal tool in holding tobacco companies accountable for misleading the public about the safety of cigarettes and the health consequences of smoking. To this day, the largest class action settlement in history remains the $206 billion agreement reached between public prosecutors in the United States with Philip Morris and other major tobacco companies.
Canada is now seeing its own landmark tobacco class action case play out in the courts. Smokers in Quebec have sought legal action against cigarette makers Rothman Benson & Hedges, JTI-MacDonald, and Imperial Tobacco Canada for failure to warn consumers about the dangers of cigarettes.
In 2015, Quebec Superior Court ordered the defendants to pay $15 billion in damages. An appeals court upheld this ruling in 2019. However, all three companies attained creditor protection after the appeal. In spite of the judgment in their favor, this may ultimately reduce the compensation to which consumers have access.
2. Indian Residential Schools Lawsuit
Details of the Case:
In the 19th century, the Canadian government created a system of residential or boarding schools to educate the children of Indigenous peoples. However, instead of education, assimilation was the goal of this program.
Attendance at residential schools was mandatory. Children systematically suffered physical, emotional, and sexual abuse; isolation from peers, family members, and tribal customs; exposure to disease; and overwork. Teachers and staff at the schools were often underpaid and unqualified, amplifying the mistreatment and neglect Indigenous students experienced.
Nora Bernard, a survivor of the Shubenacadie Indian Residential School in Nova Scotia and an activist for Indigenous peoples rights, led a group that sought justice for the pain and hardships Indigenous children suffered in the schools. Survivors of other residential schools joined this lawsuit, eventually resulting in a class litigating against the government of Canada.
The Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement is the largest class action settlement in Canadian history. Reached in 2006, the agreement created a fund of $1.9 billion for survivors of institutional abuse and neglect in the residential schools system. The settlement also includes provisions for assessment of compensation for individuals.
Read more about this case on our page about ongoing litigation in the Indian Boarding Homes Class Action case.
3. Volkswagen Emissions Scandal
Details of the case:
The automotive world was rocked in 2014 when significant discrepancies were unearthed between diesel emissions reported by Volkswagen and actual results. Emissions from the vehicles were 35 times higher than what is allowed by environmental regulations in Canada.
Ultimately, Volkswagen revealed that it outfitted vehicles with software and devices designed to trick the emissions testing process into recording lower levels of nitrogen oxide. Recalls on affected vehicles followed, as well as litigation by consumers and governments in the United States, Canada, and other countries.
Volkswagen launched a recall for affected vehicles in Canada in 2016. An estimated 20,000 vehicles in Canada were impacted, with model years ranging from 2009 to 2016.
In 2018, Volkswagen reached a settlement for $290 million in the Canadian courts.
Read more about the diesel emissions scandal on our website. (Please note that the settlement program for this class action is now closed.)
4. Royal Canadian Mounted Police Harassment, Abuse, & Discrimination
Details of the case:
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) began officially accepting female recruits in 1974. Unfortunately, since that time female officers – as well as non-policing staff and volunteers – have suffered sexual harassment, abuse, and discrimination at the hands of their male colleagues.
Over 3,000 female officers joined a class action case against the RCMP. Another class action for civilian employees and volunteers incorporates 41,000 claimants.
The claim brought by female officers against the RCMP was initially settled for $100 million in 2016. However, after three times as many women submitted claims for compensation than expected, the amount available was increased to $150 million.
Another class action lawsuit seeking compensation for women in non-policing roles was settled in 2019 for $100 million.
Klein Lawyers is proud of its role in seeking justice for women who suffered sexual and gender-oriented harassment and discrimination in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Read more about our firm’s involvement in these class action cases in the links below:
5. Vitamins Price Fixing Class Action
Details of the case:
In the 1980s and 1990s, consumers were bilked out of millions of dollars in vitamins and related products that were subject to price fixing. Price fixing occurs when businesses that are ostensibly competitors agree to raise or lower prices, in lieu of allowing the free market to determine the value of products. This practice reduces competition, and consumers generally end up paying more than they should as a result of the malfeasance.
Consumers sought compensation from 15 multinational vitamin manufacturers, including Merck, BASF, Hoffmann-La Roche, Takeda Pharmaceutical Company, and others.
In 2005, the case was settled for $132 million. In addition to consumers, compensation through the settlement was also available to universities, research groups, charities, and other organizations affected by price fixing on the products.
Contact Our Class Action Lawyers Today
Klein Lawyers is one of the most experienced and frequently recommended law firms in Canada for class action cases. View our current list of class actions to see if our lawyers are currently representing individuals in your situation.
Our firm has offices in Vancouver, Surrey, Langley, Burnaby, and other communities, as well as an office in Toronto, and we serve clients throughout Canada. Please call (604) 874-7171 today for a FREE evaluation of your case.