Can Class Action Lawsuits be Prevented with Professional Translations?

September 8, 2023
Can Class Action Lawsuits be Prevented with Professional Translations?

Class action lawsuits are legal claims where an individual (or a few individuals) represent the interests of a larger group who have suffered similar harm or damages. Clear effective communication is pivotal in business and governance to foster trust and to ensure mutual understanding. In the examples provided below, we shall examine cases where grave consequences were faced due to mistranslations or the lack of access to translation services.

According to Stanford's 2022 report, securities class action settlements saw a rise of 21%. 2022 has seen 105 cases, compared to 87 in the previous year. The cumulative worth of these settlements almost doubled, reaching $3.8 billion from the $1.9 billion recorded in 2021. The average settlement sum in 2022 for class action lawsuits went up to $13 million, 46% higher from the year prior. 

Product and Service Providers: Losses Due to Mistranslations

Businesses may face class action lawsuits when they engage in misconduct or negligence that in turn affect a large number of people. Inaccurate product labels, misleading advertising, or lack of critical multilingual materials are among the main causes for class action lawsuits against businesses. As such, professional translation services are undoubtedly imperative for businesses that cater to multilingual stakeholders.

Mistranslations in the Medical Field

One notorious case exemplifying this issue involves Willie Ramirez, who in 1980, at the age of eighteen, suffered a severe headache and later became quadriplegic. Due to a mistranslation of the Spanish word “intoxicado” to mean “intoxicated” in English, medical staff misdiagnosed Willie. In Cuban culture, “intoxicado” is a broad term referring to an ailment caused by something one consumed. Willie's family believed his condition was due to a meal he had eaten. 

However, the ER doctor interpreted it as a drug overdose, which influenced his treatment decisions. This grave misunderstanding was further exacerbated by cultural differences: in many cultures, questioning or contradicting a doctor is deemed disrespectful. With almost one in five Americans speaking a non-English language at home, the challenge posed by language barriers is ever-present.

While this particular case has not escalated to a class action lawsuit, it may as well have if the hospital's negligence continued. Relying on untrained translators, often family members or friends, can lead to serious medical errors. The narrative underscores the importance of clear communication; more importantly, the role of trained medical translators in ensuring accurate medical diagnosis and treatment. The Ramirez family received a $71 million settlement for this unfortunate oversight.

Mistranslations in Manufacturing

In 2001, Mead Johnson Nutritionals urgently recalled 4.6 million cans of Nutramigen infant formula due to a severe labeling error.This immediate action was due to cans having incorrect preparation instructions in Spanish. If followed, the steps provided could result in severe health complications and even death for infants. The affected products comprise approximately 3.7 million 16-ounce powder cans and 930,000 32-ounce ready-to-use cans.

While no illnesses have been reported, symptoms of incorrect consumption include vomiting, irritability, decreased activity, and sunken eyes. Notably, the formula caters to infants under six months with specific dietary needs. Wrong water proportions can disrupt the formula’s nutrient balance, possibly causing seizures and irregular heartbeats. Infants in warmer climates or those already unwell are at a higher risk. 

Outside of the US, Mead Johnson also distributes to Guam, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico. While no infant casualties were reported due also to the company’s quick response, it is completely possible that Mead Johnson had lost millions of dollars from transportation, storage, refunds and repackaging. They definitely dodged a class action lawsuit, but their reputation has suffered simply because of a mistranslation.

Government Institutions: Holding them Accountable

Government institutions are not exempted to such scrutiny too. Any negligence of duty allows them to be targeted in class action lawsuits. Whether it is in the form of failing to uphold laws, civil rights violations, systemic neglect, or the mishandling of public funds.

Denying Access to Translations Services

In June of 2019, a class action lawsuit was filed against NYC Department of Education (DOE). Said lawsuit was filed by Legal Services NYC on behalf of Limited English Proficient (LEP) parents. The lawsuit alleges that the DOE routinely denied Spanish- and Chinese-speaking parents crucial interpretation and translation services, hindering them from fully participating in their children's education. Due to lack of information, said LEP parents were not able to respond to urgent matters such as health emergencies and critical academic evaluations.

For instance, Hui Qin Liu, a Mandarin speaker, received a call in English about her autistic child having a seizure. On another occasion, she discovered bite marks on her child but received no coherent explanation due to the language barrier. Marcela Hernandez, another affected parent, was rebuffed by school staff when she requested a Spanish interpreter.

The lawsuit highlights the DOE's violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the NYC Human Rights Law, and the Equal Educational Opportunities Act. The aggrieved parents seek compensatory damages, penalties, and systemic changes within the DOE to ensure LEP parents receive essential language services, enabling them to advocate for their children's education effectively. As of September 2023, a motion was filed to adjourn the case.

Providing Inaccurate Translation Resources

In February of 2020, a significant development in the Canadian translation industry took place when a class action lawsuit was approved against the Canada Translation Bureau (one of the world's largest buyers of translation services). At the center of this dispute is the translation memory (TM) software used by the Bureau.

QUEBEC INC., a language service provider, alleges that the Bureau's TM is riddled with errors, lacks quality control, and hasn't been revised per standard practices, making the work more challenging for translators and unjustly reducing their remuneration. The controversial aspect of the Bureau's service contract is the "weighted word clause", which allows the Bureau to pay translators reduced rates for content that matches pre-existing translations in the TM. Given this, translators earn 50% for fuzzy matches and a mere 25% for exact matches, resulting in significant revenue losses.

On the other hand, Quattro claims considerable earnings losses and is demanding reparations on behalf of the class. Quattro’s party estimates that this clause might be depriving LSPs up to 25% of their annual income. Other professional associations have joined the lawsuit, and others are contemplating participation. The case now hinges on how the court deems the "weighted word clause".


Product and service providers must prioritize professional translation to prevent severe repercussions stemming from mistranslations. The instances provided above highlight how misinformation (due to mistranslations) can endanger actual human lives. Businesses can mitigate greater financial losses and safeguard their reputation by employing actual professional translators.

On the other hand, government institutions must prioritize language access and resources to uphold their duty of service and protect the rights of their constituents. By ensuring proper language access, government institutions do not only promote inclusivity but also streamline official multilingual processes.

Improper legal translations can also cause internal turmoil in your company. Need to safeguard your best interest and that of your stakeholders? Check out our legal translation services today.


By Ofer Tirosh

Ofer Tirosh is the founder and CEO of Tomedes, a language technology and translation company that supports business growth through a range of innovative localization strategies. He has been helping companies reach their global goals since 2007.



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