One of the strongest justifications for class actions is that they address large social wrongs that would otherwise go unremedied. But can there be a wrong that is simply too large for a class action to handle it properly? Something truly huge, like apartheid or genocide.
Some plaintiffs’ lawyers, like Hausfeld LLP, say no. In fact, the Hausfeld firm has staked its business model on that view.
Unfortunately, in most cases, the answer is probably yes. Some issues, like genocide or other large-scale human-rights violations, may simply be too complex to attack on a classwide basis in an American courtroom.
For example, take the case of Presbyterian Church of Sudan v. Talisman Energy, 226 F.R.D. 456 (S.D.N.Y. 2005). The proposed class definition hints at the scope of the problem into which the plaintiffs sought to insert the Southern District of New York. They asked to represent:
All non-Muslim, African Sudanese inhabitants of blocks 1, 2 or 4 or Unity State … [the “Class Area”] at any time during the period January 1, 1997 to June 15, 2003 [the “Class Period”], who were injured during that period by acts of the Sudanese military or allied militia constituting genocide, extra-judicial killing, enslavement, forced displacement, attacks on civilians constituting war crimes, confiscation and destruction of property, torture or rape.
The plaintiffs alleged that the defendants—Talisman Energy and the state of Sudan—
collaborated in a joint military strategy of ethnic cleansing against the plaintiffs for the purpose of creating a secure buffer zone that facilitated the development and exploitation of oil reserves …
The plaintiffs sought relief under the Alien Tort Claims Act (which allows foreign nationals to bring lawsuits in the US under certain circumstances), and requested certification under both Rule 23(b)(2) and Rule 23(b)(3).
The court held that the 23(b)(2) request, which simply asked for the creation of a "constructive trust," was
an ill-disguised claim for damages. Consequently, the plaintiffs’ request is precisely the sort of sham request for injunctive relief that the Second Circuit has stated cannot support a Rule 23(b)(2) certification.
In deciding whether to certify a Rule 23(b)(3) damages class, the court rehearsed a number of different approaches. It noted that the vast majority of ATCA classes had never reached certification, and of the three that had been certified, none were under Rule 23(b)(3). It examined the closest analogous class actions it could find—toxic torts, mass accidents, products-liability cases—and noted that certification of these classes was rare as well. Ultimately, the court held that, while there were “certainly important common issues to be resolved at trial,” causation would likely require an individualized inquiry.
The plaintiffs will have to show with respect to each individual class member that the injuries for which they are claiming damages were actually caused by the Campaign. Given that Talisman intends to show that warfare persisted through much of the Class Period between shifting, protean factions of rival rebel groups based loosely on tribal affiliations, and that such warfare included attacks on villages in the Class Area, proximate causation of each attack will be a hotly contested issue.
ATCA class claims raise a host of complex issues, none of which are easy to resolve at any level. They often involve delicate questions of international relations. They can pose a public relations problem for companies that do not handle the issues properly. And they raise valid and difficult questions of conscience for individual employees. But, addressing these issues, even just by deciding liability for historical injuries, is enormously complex. If the American executive branch—which is in charge of foreign policy—has yet to find an effective solution to these tragic problems, it’s hardly surprising that the courts have not, either.