September 25, 2015; New York Times
The indefatigable Ralph Nader has created a shrine to his passion in the American Museum of Tort Law in Winstead, Connecticut. The museum features the stories and artifacts of a half-century of the legal side of consumer advocacy—a 1963 Chevrolet Corvair is on display, for instance. The Corvair was the focus of Nader’s 1965 book, Unsafe at Any Speed. Nader, known for his frugal living, does not own a car, but he does think the Corvair looks nice as a non-mobile exhibit.
Nader has not put his name on the building, nor has he focused on his own prolific work in the field. Instead, the museum is designed to promote understanding about an important social change tool. He has been working on the project since 1998 and put $150,000 of his own money into it. Other donors include Phil Donahue, the Cummings Foundation and Consumers Union.
Incredibly, this is the only American museum dedicated to the law, and Nader hopes that the museum will teach young people about the vital role of personal injury lawsuits and the history of hard-won consumer protections.
“Tort law is being run into the ground, maligned, caricatured and slandered because it’s effective,” said Mr. Nader, who described tort reform, which tries to limit lawsuits and financial awards, as “the cruelest movement I’ve ever encountered.”
The museum traces the evolution of the law regarding negligence and liability through some of its most notable cases, involving products like the Dalkon Shield, lawn darts, Fisher Price “little people,” the Ford Pinto. McDonald’s coffee (Hot!), and tobacco products. Eventually, Nader hopes to see drama students re-enact famous tort trials in a mock courtroom, with the performances streamed to high schools, colleges, and law schools.
In the end, the project sounds fascinating, and despite the location, we believe that the museum’s doubters will be proved as wrong-headed as the tort reformers. (Winstead’s official historian Milly Hudak was quoted in the Wall Street Journal in June as saying, “Oh, big deal, Ralph Nader. I don’t think people are going to get excited.”)
“People will leave the museum and find that it connects with their experience,” Nader says. “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.’ It really resonates. It affects people in their daily lives, their anxieties, their desires for justice for injuries or illnesses.”