comscore Ralph Nader's tort law museum seeks to keep his crusade evergreen

Ralph Nader’s tort law museum seeks to keep his crusade evergreen

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WINSTED, Conn. >> There is no theme-park simulation of riding in a Ford Pinto as the gas tank bursts into flames. But there is a snazzy red Chevrolet Corvair, the car that Ralph Nader said had dangerous structural flaws in his 1965 book, "Unsafe at Any Speed."

A half-century after the book made him famous and propelled his career as consumer-crusader in chief, the 81-year-old Nader — the auto industry tormentor who does not own a car — admitted that this Corvair, whatever else, was cool-looking.

That 1963 compact is the largest artifact in the new American Museum of Tort Law that Nader has established here in his hometown in northern Connecticut. During a tour of the museum before its opening Sunday, he said he hoped the museum would teach a new generation about the vital benefits of personal injury lawsuits and even, dare it be said, plaintiff lawyers. He wants to educate people about the hard-fought history of consumer protections that are now taken for granted — and that he says are under assault.

"Tort law is being run into the ground, maligned, caricatured and slandered because it’s effective," said Nader, still the ascetic reformer who seems to sleep in a suit and tie. He described the conservative agenda of tort reform, which seeks limits on lawsuits and financial awards, as "the cruelest movement I’ve ever encountered."

The museum aims to describe the evolution of the law regarding negligence and liability, and it features some of the most groundbreaking cases of the late 20th century. These include decisions involving the Dalkon Shield (a dangerous intrauterine device) and the Ford Pinto (whose gas tank was prone to explosive burning in accidents), as well as the historic lawsuits that laid low tobacco companies and the asbestos industry.

Nader also dreams of having drama students re-enact famous tort trials in a mock courtroom here and streaming the cases online to high schools, colleges and law schools. The staff hopes to arrange frequent school tours and to keep a visible online presence.

One exhibit is devoted to "Unsafe at Any Speed," and to how Nader prodded Congress to adopt automobile safety standards. Sales of the book were significantly bolstered, along with Nader’s public stature, when General Motors admitted it had hired private detectives to follow him and search for apparently nonexistent personal dirt. The company president, James M. Roche, was forced to apologize before television cameras at a Senate hearing in 1966 and also settled a lawsuit with Nader, who used the proceeds to finance one more public interest group.

Yet the museum is by no means an all-out homage to Nader, who is widely seen as the godfather of consumer rights and public interest law, although his starlight was later dimmed by hard-edge campaigns as a third-party presidential candidate and accusations that he spoiled Al Gore’s chances against George W. Bush.

One could fill halls solely with the exploits of Nader’s Raiders, the teams of college students he set loose on polluters and toothless regulators in the late 1960s, and the work of groups he founded like the Center for Study of Responsive Law, Public Citizen and more.

But most of the displays are not about his own work, and Nader does not see the museum as a valediction.

The displays, despite large cartoonish illustrations, require close reading, and many are accompanied by thought-provoking questions about the gray areas in liability.

Still, this is Ralph Nader, and educational does not mean nonpolitical. Though the language is not shrill, a common element in the showcased disputes is what the museum’s labels describe as strenuous efforts by companies to deceive the public about risks.

Pointedly included is the case that became a symbol to some of consumer overreach and trial lawyer greed: the 1992 suit by a 79-year-old woman who was badly burned in the groin and thighs when she spilled a cup of scalding McDonald’s coffee.

The display aims to counter what it describes as myths stoked by opponents of tort law who painted the case as an example of "lawsuit lottery."

In the misguided popular lore, the display says, the woman was driving when the coffee spilled (she was not), she was not badly injured (she was, with third-degree burns that put her in the hospital for eight days and caused permanent scarring), she was out to fleece McDonald’s (the company rejected her initial request for just $20,000 to cover medical expenses) and she received millions (she received less than $500,000).

The museum is in a former bank in this struggling town, dotted with abandoned factories but on the path of weekend visitors to more prosperous areas. Nader knows that a museum in Washington would have more influence but said he had a hard enough time raising close to $3 million for this location. When he first described his vision for the museum, in 1998, he had hoped to raise $5 million within a year or two.

Speaking at a ceremony to dedicate the museum Saturday will be the former Attorney General Ramsey Clark; Sen. Richard Blumenthal D-Conn.; the prizewinning historian Eric Foner of Columbia University, who in an interview called tort law "the weapon of the weak"; and the punk-rock singer and author Patti Smith.

Improbable as it may seem, Nader and Smith, 68, have developed what both describe as a close friendship. Smith said in a telephone interview that her father, a factory worker, had worshipped Nader and that she felt a deep bond when she performed at a rally in 2000 for him.

"I was really thrilled when they asked me to join the opening of the museum," Smith said.

Nader’s difficulty in fundraising for the museum is an indication of a broader decline in his standing in some quarters.

If Nader was widely seen as a hero of the 20th century, the 21st has been less kind. He and his offshoot groups have struggled to get the splashy news coverage they once had. In 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson invited him to the White House to witness the signing of highway safety laws; today, Nader’s latest book is "Return to Sender: Unanswered Letters to the President, 2001-2015."

But beyond that, he lost support in 2000, when, critics say, his presidential run on the Green Party ticket helped Bush win. Nader rejects that charge, arguing that many other factors played a greater role in Gore’s defeat.

Still writing with Underwood manual typewriters, Nader is unbowed. If anything, he has become more caustic than ever as he denounces the influence of corporate money and power, and what he sees as government acquiescence. He also has sharp words for what he says is misinformation spread by the well-financed tort reform movement.

This month he excoriated federal prosecutors for letting his old nemesis, General Motors, off with a nearly $1 billion penalty, but no individual criminal charges, for failing to disclose a safety defect tied to at least 124 deaths.

On his blog, widely shared on progressive websites, Nader said the agreement "desecrates the memory" of the victims, and he described General Motors as a "homicidal fugitive from justice."

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