The American Museum of Tort Law

How many museums in this country are dedicated to a legal cause of action?  None, according to Ralph Nader, and this is one of the reasons that he recently opened the American Museum of Tort Law in his hometown of Winsted, Connecticut.  For those unfamiliar with Ralph Nader, he is a prominent advocate for consumer safety who has spent decades fighting for his causes as an attorney, author, and even presidential candidate.

The American Museum of Tort Law has been in the works for nearly twenty years, and finally became a reality with the help of $2 million in private donations.  The stated purpose of the museum is:  “…  to increase citizen understanding of Tort Law – the law of wrongful injury – and the role it plays in protecting personal freedom, health, and safety through the American civil justice system.”  The museum serves this mission through both exhibits at its physical location and its website.

The museum features displays on numerous significant tort cases and harmful consumer products, which serve to illustrate the development of the law of torts.  Nader designed the museum as a storytelling space, and so emphasizes the human toll caused by products such as the Ford Pinto, cigarettes, asbestos insulation, and even “Toys that Kill.”

The centerpiece of the museum space is a Chevy Corvair, a car particularly associated with Ralph Nader. Nader rose to fame upon publication of his book, Unsafe at any Speed, which was an indictment of the safety practices of the U.S. auto industry and which specifically targeted the Corvair as an example of an unsafe vehicle.  Nader alleged that the car’s rear-engine design and suspension system made it prone to crashing.

Another case that features prominently at the museum is the infamous McDonald’s “spilled coffee” case of Liebeck v. McDonald’s.  That 1992 case involved a 79 year old woman who suffered severe burns after spilling a cup of McDonald’s coffee in her lap. While tort reform advocates held this case up as an example of lawsuit abuse (asking why someone should be awarded $2.7 million for carelessly spilling coffee) the museum takes the position that the verdict was reasonable once the facts are fully understood. Such facts included the approximately 700 previous complaints from customers about the coffee being served at a dangerously high temperature and how competitors served their coffee at much lower temperatures.

The director of the museum is Richard L. Newman, is a trial attorney who practiced law for many years in Connecticut.  Among the listed “founders” of the museum is Fred Baron, who was a high-profile Texas attorney specializing in product liability and mass tort claims.  The fact that so many people involved in the creation of the museum are plaintiff’s attorneys will likely be used as a point of criticism.

The Chicago-Kent Law Library has many books written by Ralph Nader, as well as access to many articles he has written during his career.  To see what we hold, go to the library’s online catalog and run a search for “Ralph Nader.”

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