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Ralph Nader Builds Shrine To Tort Law


A Chevrolet Corvair is displayed among graphic illustrations of various landmark cases in the American Museum of Tort Law.
Patrick Skahill, WNPR
A Chevrolet Corvair is displayed among graphic illustrations of various landmark cases in the American Museum of Tort Law.

Consumer advocate and former presidential candidate Ralph Nader recently opened a museum filled with items like defective toys and unsafe machines all tied together under a unifying theme: tort law.

Unless you're a lawyer, you might not quite know the exact meaning of the word tort.

"It's a wrongful injury," Nader says. "It's a wrongful act that injures people and deserves a remedy."

At the American Museum of Tort Law's opening on Saturday, Nader spoke to an auditorium packed with supporters, students and — believe it or not — fans of tort lawyers. Gail Weed, a former volunteer on Nader's 2008 presidential campaign, was among them.

"I think of these people here as the Jedi Knights of the world," Weed says.

Singer Patti Smith was also there.

"Seeing Ralph speak is like going to a concert," Smith says. "He always makes me want to do better. He always makes me want to open my eyes wider, and he can even make you feel happily ashamed."

Smith, who counts herself as a Nader fan, came to sing at the event at Nader's invitation.

Nader says the idea for the museum came from a chat he had with another lawyer in Boulder, Colo., in the 1990s.

"The conversation steered to, 'Well, what do you do when you finish the case with these wonderful exhibits that you have in the courtroom?' " he says.

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Think exhibits for cases like the one in the '90s where a woman sued McDonald's after suffering third-degree burns from her coffee — or safety litigation against the auto industry, which helped Nader rise to prominence as a consumer advocate and public interest lawyer.

"So I feel a great debt to the common law of torts," Nader says.

To pay that debt, Nader has been working for nearly 20 years to open his shrine to tort law. Eventually, he raised about $2 million in private donations and inaugurated the small museum in his hometown of Winsted, Conn. Colorful pop-art style wall panels document battles against big tobacco. There's a room filled with items like a teddy bear with dangerous fur a child could choke on. (Don't worry, the toys are kept behind glass.)

"We wanted to walk the line between being too ivory tower and too cartoon-y and oversimplified," says museum executive director Rick Newman. "If there is a case involving a defective product, that litigation can change the entire industry and improve safety for everybody."

Newman says nothing embodies the power of tort law better than the museum's centerpiece: a bright red Chevy Corvair. Nader's book Unsafe at Any Speed was in part, an investigation of that car. The book drove the establishment of safety features like seat belts and airbags.

As the day wound down, Nader, a man who built his career on outrage, seemed happy. He smiled often as people funneled into his unlikely monument to torts. So why is his name nowhere to be found on the museum's marquee?

"The common law of torts should be named the American Common Law of Torts. Everybody contributed to it. Millions of jurors, tens of thousands of lawsuits and brave witnesses — everybody participated in it. Why would you put anybody's name on it?" he says.

In case you're wondering, admission costs $7. And yes, the museum does have a gift shop, but there's nothing unsafe here, mostly books and T-shirts.

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