America’s only law museum became a reality this weekend, as legendary consumer activist Ralph Nader officially opened the American Museum of Tort Law in his hometown of Winstead, Connecticut on Sunday. Saturday’s pre-opening celebration was a raucous affair, as far as tort law goes. Among the guests attending the day-long festivities Saturday included Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Harvard Law School’s Alexa Shabecoff, and rock legend Patti Smith, who performed at the convocation ceremony at Gilbert High School prior to an open-house walk through of the museum at 654 Main Street. Smith and Nader became good friends after Smith, whose father was a big Nader fan, performed for him at a rally during Nader’s ill-fated 2000 presidential run. Although the American Bar Association had opened a law museum at its Chicago headquarters in 1996, it closed in 2011 due to lack of funding. Originally envisioned by Nader as far back as 1998, it took years to secure enough funding to open the museum, including $150,000 of Nader’s own money to keep the project afloat. Former TV-host Phil Donahue, along with groups the Cummings Foundation and Consumers Union, helped to generate $3 million to purchase the building and fund the exhibits.
Complete with a shiny red 1963 Chevrolet Corvair, which Nader rose to fame 50 years ago writing about in his shocking at the time, “Unsafe at Any Speed,” the museum is full of artifacts surrounding Nader’s 50-plus years as a consumerist; although the displays are not limited to Nader’s personal accomplishments. Also at the museum are the infamous lawn darts (which my head was split open by as a child), a scalding hot cup of McDonald’s coffee, the Dalkon Shield contraceptive, and the Fisher Price “Little People” toys (another product I owned as a child), which were deemed a serious choking hazard. Other major legal battles on display include the Ford Pinto and its exploding gas tank, as well as displays involving tobacco and asbestos litigation, among others. The museum occupies the former Winsted Savings Bank building, a 6,500 square foot classic establishment. Nader has already announced plans to add up to 10,000 more square feet, including a second floor, which Nader envisions to contain a full-size courtroom where drama students will conduct reenactments of historic tort cases.
Despite some local townspeople like Winstead’s official historian Milly Hudak, who told the Wall Street Journal in June, “Oh, big deal, Ralph Nader. I don’t think people are going to get excited,” doubting the museum’s success; Nader believes that the venue will be very popular due to personal empathy. Nader said on Saturday, “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.’ It really resonates. It affects people in their daily lives, their anxieties, their desires for justice for injuries or illnesses.” Unlike most small-town curiosities, however Nader envisions the museum as a motivating force, saying that it “was designed to empower visitors with knowledge and teach them the truth behind high profile tort cases.” Instead of including detailed legal language, the exhibits are explained in clear, explanatory English so children will be able to gain insight from the displays as well.
Nader is hoping that the museum will help to serve future generations in understanding the power of the consumer, but also to understand the threats of the protections being removed as part of the conservative tort-reform agenda, which is an attempt to put caps on personal injury lawsuit awards. Nader said, “Tort law is being run into the ground, maligned, caricatured and slandered because it’s effective,” calling tort reform, “the cruelest movement I’ve ever encountered.” Richard Newman, the museum’s executive director and former president of the Connecticut Trial Lawyers Association also advocates for the venues real-world vitality. Newman told reporters, “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 added, “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, and frivolous lawsuits. But that’s not generally the case. I am a big believer that the tort system works pretty well.”
Hartford Courant – Susan Dunne
New Haven Register – Manon L. Mirabelli
New York Times – Erik Ekholm