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The Muscle of Justice

The common law of torts, which originated from English common law, has been elaborated in tens of thousands of judicial decisions with one basic message: If a person suffers a wrongful injury or harm, he or she can seek remedy in court with a trial by jury. Through tort law, our civil justice system operates to compensate victims, punish perpetrators and deter future harms. For years this system has been under sustained assault in Congress and state legislatures. Corporations, with their enormous lobbying influence, have few qualms about lobbying to limit Americans’ right to their day in court.

Tort law is one of the major pillars of our legal system. It provides crucial protections for individuals. Tort law has helped people harmed by defective products, medical malpractice, toxic chemical spills and much more. It sees that families are compensated for devastating losses; prevents future injuries, deaths or accidents by deterring dangerous products and practices; and spurs safety innovation and enforceable safety standards. Tort law provides a moral and ethical fiber for our society by defining appropriate norms of conduct and care. The late Peter Lewis, the former chairman of Progressive Insurance, once told me that tort law functions as his industry’s incentive for “quality control.”

The ongoing assault on the civil justice system in our country has resulted in a lessened public appreciation of the law of torts. Now comes the American Museum of Tort Law.

In the planning stages for many years, the museum is set to open in the fall of this year in my hometown of Winsted, Connecticut. The American Museum of Tort Law will be the first law museum in the country. This nonprofit, educational institution will seek to increase citizen understanding of tort law and its pivotal role in the protection of personal freedom and safety of millions of Americans. And it will celebrate the historical and contemporary achievements of the civil justice system.

What one can expect when visiting the museum later this year? Captivating displays will illustrate the history of exemplary cases, incorporating real artifacts and media. The exhibits will tell stories that illuminate the underlying principles of law and appeal to not just members of the legal profession but the many other Americans interested in learning about this important cornerstone of our legal system.

Some notable exhibits are cases that established new precedents for different wrongful injuries, such as the famous T.J. Hooper case. Cases of more contemporary significance range from those harmed by asbestos insulation to those harmed by the tobacco industry and defective motor vehicles.

In addition to housing these and many other physical exhibits, the museum will be an important digital clearinghouse for reports and commentaries on contemporary developments and judicial decisions in tort law. This will be a most valuable resource for students, scholars, the media, and the public.

There are thousands of museums in the United States — ones for every sport, many fruits and vegetables, even 30 timber and lumber museums! But, surprisingly, there are no law museums. The many victories and advancements to health and safety that have come from the law of torts and the constitutional right of trial by jury deserve a serious upswing in public recognition. We hope you will visit this first-of-its-kind institution later this year and be fascinated and enlightened by a unique museum experience.

Ralph Nader’s latest book is: Unstoppable: the Emerging Left-Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State.

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Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer and author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! 

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