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The Prudent Jurist By William H. Simon
Cases & Controversies
Ralph Nader's museum of tort law will include relics from famous lawsuitsif it ever gets built.
IN 1970 THE FORD MOTOR COMPANY, pressed by competition from Volkswagen and Japanese automakers, rushed an entry into the small-car market. It was called the Pinto, a squat compact with a gas tank riding low inside the bumper. The car was lightweight and inexpensivejust what the market had orderedbut there was a problem. In rear-end collisions, the Pinto's gas tank tended to split open, leaking fuel that could cause a nasty fire.
Preproduction tests had shown that a cheap plastic baffle would protect the gas tank from rupture, but Ford chose not to install it. Though the part weighed only a pound and cost about $11 to install, that was too much for company executives committed to producing a car that, in then-Ford president Lee Iacocca's words, should be "not an ounce over 2,000 pounds and not a penny over $2,000."
In 1977, a new federal regulation forced Ford to repair the fuel tank, and the Pinto quickly became the best-selling subcompact in the United States. But success was not to last. Consumer activist Ralph Nader, who had gained fame criticizing the Chevrolet Corvair as unsafe, helped lead a press conference that charged Ford with sacrificing human lives for profit. The bad publicity, together with a record jury verdict in favor of a young man severely burned in a Pinto fire, spelled doom for the car, and the 1980 model was the last produced.
These days, about the only place you might see a Pinto is in a museum. Next to a Corvair. Across from a dangerous lathe. Down the hall from photographs of an elderly woman severely burned by a cup of McDonald's coffee. These are four of the exhibits planned for the American Museum of Tort Law, a dream that Ralph Nader has been nurturing since 1998 and hopes to make real next year in his hometown of Winsted, Conn.
There are 33 museums in America devoted to lumber and timber, the aging consumer advocate likes to point out. "There are museums for every kind of vegetable; countless museums of cats and dogs," he said recently, "but not one [tort] law museum." It could be that Americans are just more interested in timber than torts, or that it's too hard to transform legal abstractions into eye-catching displays, but Nader doesn't think so.
A tort means, literally, a wrongful act, and under tort law, people are held responsible for causing injury by, say, producing a faulty product or failing to act with appropriate care. Nader has spent much of his life pursuing tort actions on behalf of consumers, and he considers the lawsuits "a glorious part of our history" that should be shared with the American public. So he has located space in a 19th-century factory that once produced hardware for caskets, including pieces for Grant's Tomb, and he intends to turn it into a museum by the end of 2006. Progress has been slow, though. Many of Nader's strongest and wealthiest supportersplaintiffs' lawyersblamed his candidacy for spoiling Democratic chances in the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections, and they withdrew their pledges, leaving him almost $2 million short of his $4 million fundraising goal. But Nader says he is confident that the money will come.
ON A RECENT VISIT TO THE MUSEUM SITE, Nadertypically gaunt and simply dressed in slacks and a soft blue button-down shirtlistened as his team of six architects and designers explained the latest developments. The building is largely empty, with boarded-up windows and peeling paint, but if the museum's prospects were in doubt, you couldn't tell from the group, which brimmed with "If we build it, they will come" optimism.
At the head of the table sat Gerard Eisterhold, a soft-spoken man with warm eyes and a closely trimmed beard. His Kansas City firm designs museums, and he is responsible for the tort museum's displays. A request to see the space was met with a polite but firm "no" from Claire Nader, Ralph's sister. "It'll look something like this," she said, indicating some photographs of renovated mills. But Eisterhold eagerly shared the "design development package," a thick, spiral-bound book of scanned drawings that served as a virtual museum tour.
Upon entering the museum on the ground floor, he explained, visitors will see a museum store, "where you can get, you know, your Pinto lighter," interjected a pal of Nader's named John Richard. Visitors will then cross a two-story atrium and pass exhibits about the building's history and the museum's environmentally friendly design, before ascending to the main floor and the tort law exhibits. The exhibits will occupy about a quarter of the building and will appear in an open room so visitors can walk around and view them in any order. Along the walls will run a timeline charting tort law's origins in 13th-century England through its development in America during the 20th century. The final entry will describe limits on punitive damages and other restrictions that state legislatures have imposed on tort lawsuits and remedies.
Displayed around each of the building's original timber columns will be exhibits on 11 precedent-setting cases, since that's how torts are taught in law school. The central draw of the museum will be artifacts from these and about 15 other landmarks of tort law and, in a few cases, of Nader's career.
IN 1957, WILLIAM GREENMAN WAS USING THE SHOPSMITH, a combination saw, drill, and lathe that his wife had given him for Christmas, to turn a large piece of wood that he was fashioning into a chalice. Suddenly, the wood flew from the machine and struck him in the forehead, inflicting serious injuries. A year later, Greenman sued the manufacturer, Yuba Power Products, Inc., in California Superior Court. A jury awarded him $65,000, and, in 1963, the state Supreme Court affirmed the decision. In Greenman v. Yuba Power Products, Inc., it ruled that Yuba was strictly liable for Greenman's injuries, because the company had put a defective product on the market. There was no need to prove that Yuba was careless in making the tool, the court concluded. The case established the doctrine of strict liability in tort lawand a Shopsmith like the one that injured Greenman will be on display in Nader's museum.
Across the room, visible from the top of the stairs, visitors will see a Ford Pinto, turned to reveal its gas tank. Next to the Pinto will be a Chevrolet Corvair, the rear-engine economy car that General Motors introduced in 1959 and that Nader criticized for its faulty suspension on his way to becoming a consumer hero. The main point of the exhibit, though, will not be to illustrate a defect but to portray a privacy case, Nader v. General Motors Corp. In anticipation of the release of Unsafe at Any Speed, Nader's 1965 book concerning the Corvair, GM hired a detective to investigate Nader, tapping his phones and even hiring prostitutes in an attempt to trap him in a compromising situation. Nader sued for invasion of privacy, and an opinion by the New York Court of Appeals extended the reach of tort law to cover "overzealous surveillance." GM eventually settled, and Nader said he used the proceeds, some $290,000, to start the pro-consumer Center for Study of Responsive Law.
One of the museum's highlights will be an exhibit about the infamous case of the cup of McDonald's coffee. Widely considered the classically frivolous lawsuit, the case involved an elderly woman who sued McDonald's after she spilled a cup of coffee and burned herself. In 1994, a jury awarded her $2.9 million. Eisterhold said the exhibit will separate myth from reality by displaying a photograph of the victim's severe burns and explaining that she eventually settled her case for about $600,000.
On one side of the building, visitors will find a full-size courtroom complete with jury box and witness stands. Nader hopes it will become the interactive heart of the museum, though exactly how it will be used has yet to be worked out. Ideas range from reenactments of famous personal-injury trials to movie screenings (think A Civil Action or Erin Brockovich). Like the rest of the museum, the room's purpose is meant to be shaped by the people who will use it.
But who, exactly, might that be?
Winsted is an old mill town turned bedroom community, about two and a half hours northeast of New York City. Though on the outskirts of the Berkshires, it's not a vacation destination, and the museum cannot count on much traffic from tourists strolling its quiet, leafy streets. Still, Nader and his associates believe that people will come because, well, they should. Nader rattled off statistics on wrongful deaths: 400,000 people die from tobacco every year, 58,000 from work-related injuries, and so on. "There's nothing in any other museum," he said, "that could touch more people's lives."