By John W. Schoen Senior Producer
msnbc.com

Q: How can someone join the Wal-Mart class action lawsuit?Guadalupe

A: You’re in luck. If you’re a past or current female Wal-mart employee, for now, all you have to do is wait. You only have to do something if you don’t want to join the class action.

The lawsuit, which was originally filed three years ago on behalf of six women, claims that Wal-mart didn’t pay them as well as men and didn’t offer them the same opportunities for promotions. This week, the judge hearing the case ruled that lawyers can argue the case on behalf of all women who work at Wal-Mart in the United States, or who worked there at any time since December 26, 1998. (The class includes workers at the company’s discount stores, supercenters, neighborhood stores, and Sam's Clubs. Workers at distribution centers, headquarters or overseas stores are not included.)

So unless you decide opt out and file your own lawsuit, you’re automatically covered – as long as you can prove you’re in the class. (We hope you saved all those pay stubs.)

That’s the major benefit that class action lawsuits offer people who believe they’ve been harmed and want to file a claim. Someone else does all the work and, if they succeed, you get to collect.

There are other reasons why it can make sense to combine lawsuits by people who share a common claim against a single company. Individuals who’ve been hurt are spared the expense of hiring their own lawyers. The company may be able to settle all claims at once and avoid a long and expensive trial. And the court system is spared the burden of hearing the same arguments over and over in separate cases.

But there are definite drawbacks. For starters, much of the money ends up in the hands of lawyers, reducing the amount paid to those who were actually harmed. It doesn’t cost the lawyers suing Wal-mart much more money to try the case for one woman than for 100. But by increasing the number of plaintiffs to as many as 1.6 million current and former workers, those lawyers can dramatically increase the amount of damages they ask for -- to make up for all the money that they claim Wal-mart owes all of those female employees. If the company decides to settle the case, it will pay more. And in this case could be slapped with punitive damages – a kind of giant fine designed to punish a company for behaving badly. Either way, expanding the case to a class action automatically expands the size of the lawyers’ paychecks.

It can also be difficult to define a class of people that were all harmed in exactly the same way. A number of attempts, for example, have been made to sue tobacco companies on behalf of all smokers. But the harm caused by smoking varies greatly according to how much you smoked and other factors that vary from one smoker to the next. Wal-mart will almost certainly try to make that argument –- that conditions for more than a million employees working in thousands of stores varied too widely for them to be considered a class -– when it appeals the ruling that allowed the class action to go forward.

Even if that appeal fails, it will be at least a year before the case goes to trial. And, of course, there’s no guarantee the class action will succeed. This week’s ruling just allows the case to go forward; it has nothing at all to do with whether Wal-mart will win or lose the case.

For more on the class action, check out the Web site set up by the lawyers who brought the case. If they win, you'll have plenty of time to contact them and let them know you're due some back pay. Or if you want to sign up now, you can call 877-966-2696.

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