WINSTED, Conn. — If you’re building the American Museum of Tort Law and locating it in this hard nut of a town, along Main Street near Tattoos by Candace, the Flip N Grill and down the road from the Sunday morning turkey shoot, you’d best add a few bells and whistles to attract a crowd.
Cartoons help. Like a cartoon flaming rat. Or a cartoon exploding Pinto, cartoon cigarettes, cartoon asbestos, a cartoon depicting that historic moment in torts when a 190-degree cup of McDonald’s coffee burned Scalding Crusader Stella Liebeck.
And, for the kids, an alcove display of Toys That Kill.
The American Museum of Tort Law is no joke: It’s the two-decade, nearly $3 million dream of consumer advocate and persistent presidential candidate Ralph Nader.
America has a serious surfeit of museums, 35,000 of them, more museums than Starbucks and McDonald’s combined. Did it need another? And one dedicated to torts, the law of wrongful injuries?
“It’s the first law museum in North America of any kind,” says Nader, 81, stooped, a tad grayer, offering a tour of his baby, 6,000 square feet of exhibit space in a former bank building. “There may not be another law museum in the world. It involves everybody. It’s not legal jargon. It’s fascinating stories.”
If the wheels of justice turn slowly, the wheels of an American Museum of Tort Law turn at a near-tectonic rate.
Nader — who concedes, “I am not a museum person. I am bored by most museums. I’m not an aesthete” — initially promised it would open in 2000. Funding proved the obstacle. No government handouts. Corporations, opponents in these cases, weren’t going to provide. Nader personally donated $150,000. The remainder came primarily from — you guessed it — trial lawyers, the heroes of this institution.
Two Saturdays ago, the museum officially opened. Nader’s friend Patti Smith sang “People Have the Power,” though she stumbled over the name of the town.
The centerpiece of the museum, its Venus de Milo, is a pristine 1963 Corvair, a fetching tomato-soup red, truly a thing of beauty — even Nader concedes “it’s one of the prettiest cars ever designed” — if it weren’t such a highly documented, frequently litigated implement of destruction.
The American Museum of Tort Law does not so much roll off the tongue as torque it. Did Nader consider something catchier, like the Museum of Unfortunate Events, or Exploding Cars and Stuff?
On the name, Nader, a man noted for his persistence, would not be deterred.
“Right from the beginning, I wanted a name where people would say, ‘What’s a tort?’ ” Also, “I was fortified over the last 20 years by all the geniuses in Silicon Valley who named their companies the most bizarre things — Yahoo, Yelp, names that don’t mean anything.”
Tort inspires bewilderment in many people, and dread in first-year law students, though its importance in guaranteeing safety and healthier lives is incalculable, especially during the second half of the 20th century, thanks in large part to Nader and his legion of activist Raiders. Tort also helped make citizens aware of possible dangers in corporate activity.
Attacks on tort law by corporations, insurance companies and Republicans increased “as we became more successful in winning cases,” Nader says. “The attack on civil justice is so brazen, turning trial lawyers into ogres. These are the people who don’t get paid until they win. They don’t create the hazards. Opponents call it ‘tort reform,’ but it’s an effort to dismantle it.”
Nader speaks of tort law and contracts in language equal parts poetic and patriotic, his love for the discipline undiminished since his first Harvard Law School class, “a total thrill.” He grows rhapsodic citing landmark cases. “Have you heard about the flaming rat case? Terrific case. It dealt with corporate accountability.”
The flaming rat case from the 1940s is a staple of tort law and law school classes. A 19-year-old was cleaning a machine with gasoline when a rat underneath it got doused and caught fire, the subsequent explosion causing the death of both of them. The worker’s estate successfully sued the company for not teaching workers how to safely clean its machinery.
Also, there’s the curious decision to situate the museum in Winsted, population 7,563, a place not exactly thronged with trial lawyers. It’s more a town to drive through on the way to more bucolic, white clapboard climes. Winters can be a beast.
“It’s near America’s first law school, Tapping Reeve,” offers museum executive director and trial lawyer Richard Newman, co-author of the treatise “Tort Remedies in Connecticut,” referring to Litchfield Law School.
You may be excused for not knowing this. The school closed in 1833.
Newman suggests, “It’s halfway between Boston and New York.” Which is also true of Hartford.
Okay, so it’s Nader’s home town, where his father operated the Highland Arms restaurant, now closed. (Food, it was said, arrived with a side order of opinion.) The family homestead is a five-minute walk from the museum, a good thing since Nader, the avenging adversary of the auto industry, doesn’t own a car.
His last vehicle was a 1949 Studebaker owned, in Naderesque fashion, in the late ’50s. Fifty years ago, Nader published his landmark indictment of Detroit, “Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile,” which made it unwise for him to drive any car at any speed for risk of seeming like an endorsement.
He loves the museum, the interactive design of cases. “That’s the genius of this design,” he says of the one-floor space, the original bank vault intact. “You can do this museum in 30 minutes, one hour, two hours — you can actually spend five hours looking, reading in this museum.”
Adds Newman, “I’ve heard six.”
The American Museum of Tort Law (AMTL doesn’t improve matters), with its cases and cartoons and pulp-fiction drawings of consumer horrors (former auto chief Lee Iacocca, the prince of the combustible Pinto, is rendered like a Dick Tracy villain), reminds visitors how unhealthy American lives were not so long ago, before Nader’s efforts. Dangerous Dalkon Shields in women’s bodies, choking toys, asbestos and secondhand cigarette smoke everywhere.
The museum is not designed as a tribute to its founder, although references can be found throughout. There’s a copy of “Unsafe at Any Speed” in the exhibit. Nader appears in the short introductory film, narrated by his friend and museum supporter Phil Donahue. There’s a cartoon panel of Nader crusading against the auto industry, including the depiction of General Motors hiring a prostitute to try to compromise the famously ascetic Nader. (The covert effort failed.)
But you won’t find a dark-suited Ralph Nader plush doll in the gift shop. (Though what a fundraising lark that might prove!) Patrons exit through the gift shop. Enter, too. Given its size, the museum won’t be confused with the National Gallery. Its gift shop is small, too. It’s stocked with tomes on famed tort cases, plus T-shirts of the cartoon exploding Pinto and Nader’s beloved flaming rat case (United Novelty Co., Inc. v. Daniels). The shop attendant, a lawyer, was still mastering the cash register as the change drawer slammed into her gut.
In person, Nader can charm. He proves fairly game. He says he owns only three dark suits. At home, on the weekends, he can dress down, not jeans but a pair of cords. He watches sports. Correction: “I like to listen to championship games,” while he marks up and critiques newspapers and trade journals. Bad habits? “Quality sweets.”
He has appeared on “Sesame Street” and multiple times on “Saturday Night Live.” He was the subject of a 1974 Dean Martin roast. He loves humor.
“Aside from raising children,” says Nader, who has never married and has none, “the ultimate purpose of life is laughter. If there was 100 percent justice, what would I do? I would be a satirist.” He’s prone to counting what he calls “clicks” — the ha, ha, has — he incites in people. He’s found a way to quantify humor. “I clocked one friend at 50 clicks.”
The American Museum of Tort Law is not meant to be Nader’s legacy project, but then again it is. Without him, there would be no museum. It certainly wouldn’t be situated in Winsted.
The men who ultimately bested him in all those presidential races will have their presidential libraries. Nader has his American Museum of Tort Law.
Which he plans to expand — possibly in two years, he claims.
He wants to build an additional 10,000 square feet, including a full-size courtroom to reenact famous tort cases with students serving in the jury box, “and cases streaming all over the country.” Another goal for the museum is “to inspire children to get interested in jury service. We have a massive jury crisis in this country,” and he rattles off more statistics. The addition may include a Pinto, the other, though less comely, Car of Death.
He plans for touring exhibits, more interactive displays. The Web site, just launched, will include more cases and legislative developments.
Given that the American Museum of Tort Law was a tough sell and took 20 years to build, has Nader raised the estimated $5 million to $7 million for Phase 2? “No,” he says. “But with word of mouth, maybe it will go faster.”