The Most Famous And Most Expensive Class Action Suits In American History

From corporate accounting fraud to the protection of America’s youth, class action lawsuits presented in courtrooms across the country created headlines. Some trials brought criminal prosecution, however, all ended with clients receiving astronomical compensatory fees. These cases set a precedence for the number of clients involved, the number of people prosecuted or the amount of money awarded by the court.

Master Tobacco Settlement

In November of 1998, attorneys general and various representatives of 46 states won a massive $206 billion settlement, payable over 25 years, against the leading six tobacco manufacturing companies in the country. Each state filed an individual lawsuit under anti-trust and consumer protection laws for the purpose of recovering costs paid out by Medicare/Medicaid programs for tobacco related health issues. Another goal of the group of state representatives included enforcing legislation geared toward the reduction of tobacco product use by under aged consumers.

Dukes vs. Wal-Mart Stores

Three former Wal-Mart employees filed a class action lawsuit alleging sexual discrimination on behalf of 1.5 million female employees who worked for the corporation from 1998 to 2000. The case remains pending. The defendants are requesting $11 billion in back pay. The women claim that despite years of faithful employment, they continually endured unequal treatment compared to male co-workers. The women testified that inappropriate treatment by local managers included suggestions to enhance physical appearance, increased severity of penalties for committing company infractions and promotion denials regardless of qualifications.


When Enron declared bankruptcy in 2001, the action left thousands of employees and investors without health insurance, retirement plans and wages. After a federal investigation into the corrupt practices of the organization and a subsequent lawsuit, the court awarded $7.2 billion in 2008 as compensation to the victims of the extensive accounting fraud. Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase & Co., Citigroup and other financial institutions participated in the white-collar crime along with Enron executives Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling.

World Com

Following a criminal investigation, trial and subsequent class action lawsuit, courts awarded $6.2 billion to investors in 2005 who fell victim to the corporation’s accounting fraud. Investors having stock with the company from April 1999 through June 2002 filed the suit against the corporation, two CEOs, the controller and accounting director. Courts found World Com guilty of overvaluing assets while hiding expenses and minimizing losses, which amounted to $79 billion in fraud overall.

Breast Implant Litigation

Considered the largest settlement in history at the time, the 1994 class action lawsuit filed against Baxter, Bristol-Meyers and Corning, along with other leading breast implant manufacturers, netted an award of $4.2 billion. Many women receiving implants developed various immune system oriented diseases that affected skin, connective tissue and nerve tissue. Any woman having undergone saline, silicone or silicone gel implant surgery and registered as a participant in the lawsuit may receive compensation for qualifying medical conditions. The monetary award also includes any registered woman who might develop an implant related condition in the three decades following the settlement decision.


In 2000, the court awarded over 125,000 plaintiffs damages in the amount of $3.75 billion for injuries or death incurred while taking the diet cocktail known as Fen-Phen. Wyeth laboratories also earmarked an additional $16.6 billion in preparation of paying damages and expenses for approximately 70,000 individual lawsuits filed against the company. Dexfenfluramine and fenfluramine received FDA approval individually; however, physicians combined the medications for appetite suppressing qualities and mood enhancement. Taking the combination of medications contributed to pulmonary hypertension and cardiac valvular disease.

Pacific Gas and Electric

With the help of Hollywood, PG&E along with Erin Brockovich became household names during the 1990s. The now famous case involved establishing a link between the variety of serious illnesses suffered by current and past Hinkley, California residents and the town’s water contaminated with hexavalent chromium. Pacific Gas and Electric used the compound as a coolant while hiding potential health risks from employees and the community. In 1996, the court awarded 1,100 chromium victims a history-making sum of $295 million, which equated to $268,000 for each individual.

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Sheila Connolly is writing on behalf of Philadelphia class action attorney, Golomb and Honik, PC. Sheila is a freelance reseacher living in Brooklyn.

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