The effects of plain language drafting on layperson's comprehension of class action notices
Wheatman, Shannon Renee
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Most class action notices are written in complex terminology that the average person may find difficult to comprehend. We conducted a pilot study on four class action notices (securities, product liability, personal liability/personal injury, employment) with 60 non-legal employees in Washington, DC. We found an average comprehension rate of 56% for the four notices. Next, with the help of a trained legal linguist, we attempted to redraft two class action notices (securities and asbestos cases) in plain language. We conducted four focus groups (N = 33) with a trained moderator in Baltimore, Maryland. The focus groups provided us with an opportunity to pilot test the revised plain language notices and to gain information about class action schemas. Many participants see class action notices as being wordy and full of legalese. The plain language notices and summaries were embraced in the focus groups and the comments given by participants were invaluable for refining our plain language materials. The design of the final study was a 2 (original securities vs. plain language securities notice) x 3 (no summary vs. outline summary vs. full summary) design with a dangling control group (full summary with no notice). Two hundred and twenty-nine participants who were members of stock clubs across the country (AL, AZ, CA, CO, CT, FL, KS, MD, MI, MS, MO, NY, OH, OR, PA, VA, WA, and DC) completed an internet questionnaire on their comprehension of class action notices and or summaries. The final study validated our securities plain language notice and summary, in that they were much easier to comprehend then the original notice. Class attorneys should not feel comfortable sending out a notice that cannot even inform an educated reader about the consequences of excluding themselves, doing nothing, or how to make an objection. Prospective class members should be well informed of their rights and our results imply that only a plain language notice or full summary can do so.