Bar News - July 20, 2016
Museum of Tort Law: A Place Only a Lawyer Could Truly Love
By: Nicholas Mignanelli
The 1963 Chevrolet Corvair was the topic of the book Unsafe at Any Speed. The book’s notoriety made its author, Ralph Nader, a household name.
As I drove down Main Street in Winsted, Connecticut, I passed family-owned businesses, the campus of Northwestern Connecticut Community College, and the factory building that had once housed the Gilbert Clock Company. Finally, I came upon the stone exterior of the American Museum of Tort Law, a former bank building that had opened its doors as a museum just a few months earlier.
I was greeted by Sara Nowak, the museum’s warm and energetic assistant director who had agreed to give me a tour, which began in a hallway. Inscribed on the wall to my left read an aphorism famously spoke by Judge Learned Hand at the Legal Aid Society’s 75th Anniversary Celebration in 1951: “If we are to keep our democracy, there must be one commandment: Thou shalt not ration justice.” Immediately before me stood a great frieze, a vivid timeline depicting the history of tort law, starting in the Middle Ages to extending to the present day.
I walked into the next room where I was surrounded by panels depicting nearly a dozen “Precedent-Setting Cases,” some of them bitingly funny. Among these illustrations are the old chestnuts of many a tort casebook: Hoffman v. Jones (Fla. 1973); Sioux City & Pacific Railroad Co. v. Stout (1873); and Tarasoff v. Regents of the University of California (1976). My favorite, however, was the panel depicting MacPherson v. Buick Motor Co. (1916) in which plaintiff Donald MacPherson – holding the wooden wheel that had fallen off his car – points to the dealer that had sold him the vehicle, and the dealer points to the scheming manufacturers.
After perusing the panels for several minutes, Sara led me to a makeshift theatre where a movie describing the history and importance of tort litigation plays on loop. The movie begins with a description of how tort law arose in Medieval England, and the importance that the Founding Fathers attributed to trial by jury.
In a quick transition, the film asserts that – beginning in the industrial age – the threat to trial by jury in America was no longer posed by King George III, but by corporate entities. The film then describes instances in which the courts have punished corporate entities for their malfeasance. These tales are followed by solemn warnings about the future of tort law.
Ralph Nader, the museum’s founder and one of the speakers featured in the film, urges viewers to be vigilant against those who threaten access to justice. He encourages visitors to become litigants so that the law will grow to meet the needs of a changing world. What I found puzzling, however, is that this implicit critique of the arbitration movement fails to account for the congestion of the modern court system. What’s more, America already has an extremely litigious society. Americans file more lawsuits per capita than do citizens in Australia, Canada, France, Japan, and the United Kingdom.
Another speaker featured in the film insists that wealthy corporate forces are aligning against the people to bring about “tort de-form,” and that it is impossible to match the unlimited funds at the disposal of these entities. I asked Sara about the counterargument that corporations aren’t the only entities with a vested interest in the outcome of tort reform proposals, i.e., organizations like the American Association for Justice (formerly the Association of Trial Lawyers of America) have also spent a great deal of money working to defeat tort reform on behalf of their clients. “Look,” she said, “there are always people out there who are only interested in making money, but there are also many trial lawyers who are just trying to get justice for their clients.”
She led me to the next room where we encountered a set of interactive exhibits geared toward young visitors. More interesting, however, was an adjacent room dedicated to the work of Edward Swartz. Swartz, an attorney and consumer advocate, spent most of his career investigating the toy industry and founded World Against Toys Causing Harm (WATCH), an organization famous for its annual list of the “10 Worst Toys.”
Inside a glass display case sits the causes of many a parent’s grief: a teddy bear with fur a child had choked on; a set of lawn darts that, in several instances, had caused death or serious injury when they hit the face or head of a bystander; and a plastic war hammer that had inflicted a harsher blow than expected. After perusing these artifacts of human tragedy for several minutes, we proceeded to the final exhibit.
We walked into to a showroom where illustrated diagrams told of famous victories in tort law. Among these were tales of tobacco and asbestos litigation, and the story of the “Flaming Rat Case” from United Novelty Co. v. Daniels (Miss. 1949). In the center of the room sat the museum’s pièce de résistance: a red 1963 Chevrolet Corvair. This car was the topic of Unsafe at Any Speed, the 1965 book that made “Ralph Nader” a household name. The accompanying diagram explains how, following the publication of Nader’s book, General Motors began to investigate Nader in hopes of uncovering information that would discredit him. Nader later sued General Motors for invasion of privacy, and settled in 1970 for the $425,000 that he would use to found the Center for Study of Responsive Law.
Nader’s American Museum of Tort Law is bizarre, eclectic, and colorful. It is a collection that is as thought-provoking and controversial as the legacy of its founder. Above all, it is a place that the laity might enjoy, but only a lawyer could truly love.
For more information about the museum, visit its website, www.tortmuseum.org.
Nicholas Mignanelli is a graduate of the University of New Hampshire School of Law.