Ralph Nader Opening American Museum Of Tort Law
In 1965, Ralph Nader wrote "Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile." The exposé made one reputation (his) and destroyed another, that of the Chevrolet
Corvair, now considered one of the most dangerous cars ever made.
Fifty years later, Nader is proud to own a shiny red 1963 Chevrolet Corvair.
Nader isn't driving the classic car. He's making an example of it. It is the centerpiece exhibit in a museum that Nader is opening to the public Sunday in his hometown of Winsted. At the American Museum of Tort Law, the Corvair will be beside exhibits about that notorious cup of McDonald's coffee and other important civil tort cases.
The museum was dedicated Saturday at ceremonies attended by Nader, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, Alexa Shabecoff of Harvard Law School and rock star Patti Smith, among other notables.
Nader says his new place is the country's only law-themed museum.
"There are 35,000 museums in the country, 62 medical museums, 31 timber-lumber museums sponsored by the industry largely, a museum for major fruits and vegetables, a garlic museum ... a museum for every sport, plus every conceivable collectible," he said. "How could a country dedicated to the rule of law not have a single law museum?"
A Museum of Law existed inside the Chicago offices of the American Bar Association from 1996 to 2011. That museum had exhibits focusing on famous lawyers, such as lawyers who became presidents, and famous court cases such as the O.J. Simpson, Brown v. Board of Education and Lizzie Borden trials. It was closed in 2011 due to lack of funding. Other exhibits have been mounted on law themes inside courthouses and other public buildings throughout the country, but no other museum is fully dedicated to the law.
A tort is a legal case filed by a person who has been injured physically or emotionally by the wrongful actions of a person or a corporation. Some common tort categories involve invasion of privacy, medical malpractice and product liability, including adverse effects of drugs.
The Corvair illustrates a case from Nader's life. General Motors, angry about "Unsafe at Any Speed," sought to discredit Nader by tapping his phones, following him, probing into his past and hiring prostitutes to try to entrap him. In 1966, Nader sued for invasion of privacy and won. The New York Court of Appeals ruling in the case was used to expand tort law to cover "overzealous surveillance."
Gerard Eisterhold of Eisterhold Associates, designer of the exhibits, said that other exhibits discuss tobacco, asbestos, workers' compensation, automobile safety, the infamous Dalkon Shield contraceptive and Fisher-Price Little People and other toys, which were redesigned through the years due to concerns about choking hazards. "It's amazing the dangerous things we were allowed to play with as kids," Eisterhold said.
Nader said he believes that the museum will be popular. .
"People will leave the museum and find that it connects with their experience. You know, 'Aunt Mary and Uncle Joe, they were in a crash because GM didn't recall the car because of the ignition switch' or 'We got sick from contaminated food that was not properly refrigerated,'" he said. "It really resonates. It affects people in their daily lives, their anxieties, their desires for justice for injuries or illnesses."
Richard Newman is executive director of the museum. The Redding resident is a retired prosecuting attorney who specialized in torts when he was with the Bridgeport law firm of Adelman Hirsch & Newman (now Adelman Hirsch & Connors). He also is the former president of the Connecticut Trial Lawyers Association. Newman said a tort museum is long overdue.
"I think it's necessary because the right to a trial by jury is enshrined into the Bill of Rights, but it is less and less taught in high school civics classes. People don't have the opportunity to learn about it," Newman said. "I think it's long overdue because in the last 30 years, there has been a concerted attack on the jury system, tort law and the quote unquote greedy lawyers. You hear about greedy lawyers, runaway juries, frivolous lawsuits. But that's not generally the case. I am a big believer that the tort system works pretty well."
Attacks come from two sources, "corporations that never want to be sued for their wrongdoing ... and all their front groups," Nader said, referring to corporation-bankrolled think tanks. "They put stuff out that is nonsense. ... 'Did you hear about the case where a guy picked up his power lawn mower to cut his shrubbery and hurt his hand and arm and collected millions of dollars from the jury?' Totally fictitious. It was used by all kinds of prominent people. They're fed these cases. When we correct them, they're very embarrassed."
Nader, 81, said that many lawyers, as well as other interested parties including TV host Phil Donahue and foundations including Nader's own Center for the Study of Responsive Law, the Cummings Foundation and Consumers Union, donated a total of $3 million for the museum project. That money was used to buy the vacated building that once housed Northwest Community Bank, at 654 Main St. (Route 44), and renovate it.
He hopes that the museum can expand later to include a full-sized courtroom for mock trials and presentations. The expansion, which he estimates will cost $5 million to $7 million, also would include exhibits on confidentiality and arbitration clauses and another focus that will go over well in Hartford: how the insurance industry can be a force for good, decreasing tort caseloads by improving consumer safety. "There's a nice history of insurance-company loss prevention. The way they reduce claims and save more money is to produce safer conditions," Nader said.
Nader has wanted to open this museum since 1998. He said he had trouble raising money for it until the bank building was vacated and became available two and a half years ago. He is happy to put it in Winsted rather than a big city.
"People would say, 'Why don't you put it in Washington?' I'd say, 'It'd add another two zeros to the budget,'" he said. "Then they'd say, 'Why in a small town?' I'd say, 'Why not in a small town?' Small towns have been marginalized. Everything's in a big city. And it's my hometown."
Attorney Jeb Butler dicusses the importance of litigation and against unnecessary Tort Reform
THE AMERICAN MUSEUM OF TORT LAW at 654 Main St. in Winsted will open to the public Sunday, Sept. 27, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m, free of charge. Regular hours are Wednesday to Monday 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., admission $7, $5 seniors and students, children younger than 10 free, yearly from April 1 to Dec. 31.