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Report From Winsted: Nader’s Museum

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My favorite Helena Bonham Carter film is called Margaret’s Museum.  In it, she plays Margaret MacNeil, the young widow of a Nova Scotia coal miner killed, on the job, like others in her family before him.

Margaret’s grief leaves her mentally unhinged in a community steeped in fatalism and acceptance. After her release from an asylum, she turns her seaside cottage into a museum depicting the human toll of underground mining. The sign outside, drawing few tourists in the late 1940s, says simply: “The Cost of Coal.”

As the movie opens, a man and woman drive up to Margaret’s home on Glace Bay and seek admittance. A moment later, the female vacationer comes running out the front door, screaming in horror. As we learn later in the film, the exhibits include fluid filled jars with the damaged lungs of Margaret’s grandfather, her late husband’s tongue, and her young brother’s penis, preserved because, as she explains, “it was the most important thing he had” before his untimely death on the job.

I thought instantly of this movie, in late July, when I was the sole Sunday morning viewer of exhibits in a Winsted, CT. museum similarly suffused with righteous indignation over the human cost of hazardous products and dangerous occupations.

The American Museum of Tort Law was created by Ralph Nader to remind visitors how workers, consumers, and our environment have all suffered when auto and asbestos manufacturers, Big Pharma, the tobacco industry, or fast good chains put corporate profit ahead of public health and safety.

Like mining communities in Nova Scotia, working class Winsted has seen better days. Its two-year old shrine to the law of wrongful injuries is housed
in an old savings bank on a main street dotted with empty storefronts and abandoned factories. Who else but this city’s most famous native son would employ, in the name of a local museum, a legal term that most Americans– other than lawyers and judges–can’t accurately define (and/or confuse with the name of a European pastry)?

A Visual Argument

But that’s part of the educational value of a venue now popular with local public school children, law student delegations, senior citizen outings, and rainy day strays from the nearby Berkshires. The Washington, DC-based lawyer, consumer advocate and former presidential candidate has put together a compelling visual argument for the crucial role that tort law, jury trials, and money damages have played in pressuring big business to clean up its act.

In the museum gift shop, I confirmed a Wall Street Journal report that Ralph’s museum is one of the few places in America, other than law school book stores, where Prosser, Wade, and Schwartz’s standard text, Torts: Cases and Materials, is available for purchase. (One glance at that tome triggered a PTSD-like tremor not unknown to other long ago first-year law students.) Also on sale are more readable autographed copies of Nader’s own most famous works. Among them is a 50th anniversary commemorative edition of Unsafe at Any Speed, which made the case for seat belts and other auto safety devices now considered standard equipment but initially opposed, by auto makers, as costly and unnecessary forms of “over-regulation.”

The museum features, most prominently, the story of killer cars like the Ford Pinto (whose concealed-by-the-company defects resulted in two dozen deaths and a jury award of $100 million in punitive damages).  A well-restored 1963 Chevrolet Corvair, shiny and red, brings Nader’s long personal battle with General Motors back to life. That crusade resulted in Congressional investigations of the company’s retaliatory invasion of his privacy and attempts to publicly discredit him. (GM ended up apologizing to Nader and paying him $450,000, settlement money used to fund new consumer advocacy groups that he created in Washington, DC.)

Other more interactive exhibits highlight personal injury and class action cases both well-known and obscure. In the shocker tradition of Margaret’s Museum, there is footage, in a video on the history of tort law, showing the terrible third degree burns suffered twenty-five years ago by 79-year old Stella Liebeck,  one of 700 McDonald’s customers scalded by its then over-heated coffee. When the company declined to pay $20,000 for her medical expenses, Liebeck sued and won a controversial jury trial award of $2.7 million (punitive damages later reduced to $480,000 by a judge who nevertheless found McDonald’s conduct to be reckless, callous, and willful.)

In the “Toys That Harm” room, visitors learn about Nader’s fellow consumer crusader Ed Schwartz who jousted with firms like Fischer-Price for years, exposing preventable accidents involving bottle rockets, pull toys, crib gyms, and thumb-size figurines easily swallowed by young children.

Our Day in Court Endangered?

The legal field celebrated so unusually in Winsted has become the bete noire of corporate America and its conservative cheerleaders. As Nader explains, in the 1970s, “the insurance industry and other corporate lobbies began pushing one restriction after another through state legislatures” that have curbed “the rights of ordinary people to have their day in court.”

Although, according to Nader, his fellow Americans file fewer lawsuits per capita today than they did in the 1840s, U.S. business has widely promoted the idea that our society is “too litigious.” An alleged flood of personal injury cases is clogging the state and federal courts, plus “costing jobs, retarding innovation, and harming our country’s competitiveness.” In this well-funded narrative, personal injury lawyers are depicted as greedy parasites, bleeding corporate treasuries wherever they can over manufactured class action claims that defendants would prefer to see handled through binding arbitration covering only individual complaints.

As Nader noted in Harpers last year, members of the personal injury bar are regularly accused of lining their own pockets with hefty contingency fees from multi-million dollar damage awards or settlements.  Adding insult to injury, some also have been known to use their ill-gotten gains to make generous campaign donations to Democratic candidates said to be more plaintiff friendly (but definitely not always so).

Meanwhile, the real big money is pouring into what Nader calls “tort deform” campaigns—multi-million dollar advertising and lobbying efforts making “wild accusations about outlandish jury awards assessed against innocent companies, even members of the clergy and obstetricians.” Since 2011, nearly forty state legislatures have responded by imposing damage caps, banning punitive damages, or raising the burden of proof for aggrieved consumers. A conservative Supreme Court has done its part with decisions making class action litigation more difficult.

When Nader was growing up in Winsted, his Lebanese immigrant father who ran a local restaurant, often told him that, “if people do not use their rights, they will, over time, lose them.” The bottom line message of Ralph’s museum is the same today: “citizens need to be vigilant!”

Creating the Tort Museum in part of Nader’s broader personal effort to help revive his hometown. He also aids a local bookstore committed to “progressive politics and democracy building” and sponsors an annual “Booming Winsted Book Festival,” whose motto is “Readers Think and Thinkers Read.” (In the interests of full consumer disclosure, I should note that I was honored to join the speaker line-up for this year’s festival)

On the weekend of July 21-23, Nader fans, from Winsted and out of town, could find him in the Winsted Community Bookstore, talking politics, signing books, and introducing visiting authors, with his usual insightful framing of the issues of the day. Still thin as a rail, more stooped at age 83, and his hair now gray, Nader retains the same passionate belief in citizen action and corporate accountability that has animated every stage of his storied fifty-year career.

Ralph’s museum, organized as a non-profit educational institution, is a fitting tribute to his life’s work—and a challenge to others to carry it on.

(For more details on American Museum of Tort Law visiting hours and ways to support this project.)

Steve Early has been a labor activist since 1972, including a two-year stint with the Ralph Nader-inspired Professional Drivers Council, which later became part of Teamsters for a Democratic Union. His latest book is Refinery Town: Big Oil, Big Money, and the Remaking of An American City from Beacon Press. He can be reached at Lsupport@aol.com.

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Steve Early is a resident of the San Francisco Bay Area currently working on a book about progressive municipal policy making there and elsewhere. He is the author, most recently, of Save Our Unions (Monthly Review Press, 2013). He can be reached at Lsupport@aol.com

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