October 1, 2015, 8:40 a.m. CDT
Scalding coffee, exploding cars, and dangerous toys are catnip for the plaintiffs’ attorneys, but do they appeal to ordinary people? Ralph Nader believes that and wants to prove it with the American Museum of Tort Law. The museum was located in an old bank building in Nader’s hometown of Winsted, Connecticut, and was due to open in late September.
Nader first proposed his idea for a crime museum in 1998. Despite the passage of time and challenges in fundraising, the 81-year-old consumer advocate (and frequent presidential candidate) said this type of institution has never been more relevant. “It couldn’t come at a better time,” he says, “with the monumental concentration of corporate power worldwide on government, labor, technology and capital.”
It’s also interesting stuff. “People are really curious about cakes,” says Nader, who is the museum’s president. “Part of it is that they like to see courtroom scenes – look at Judy Judy’s audience – and part of it is that it relates to their lives.”
Yes, Nader has heard the cake jokes before. But he believes that “Tort” in the title gets people talking – and wants to know more. “You want people to ask,” he says. “Nobody asks about a civil justice museum.” What was never on the table: everything that contained Nader’s name. “It goes against my public philosophy,” he says.
Visitors to the museum are introduced to a number of key cases, ranging from precedents like the TJ Hooper cash lawsuit, to key measures promoting consumer safety related to asbestos and tobacco, to headline-making like the McDonald’s coffee crate. A current Chevrolet Corvair is on display, along with a collection of dangerous toys that Nader calls “Toys that Kill”.
The level of human drama is high here, and that’s part of the appeal, says executive director Richard L. Newman, who joined the museum this summer after a successful career as plaintiff’s trial attorney in Connecticut. “So it’s going to be an eye-opening experience,” he says. “People will see how the law and these cases have really changed lives for the better.”
To turn complex cases into engaging, interactive displays that an eighth grader could understand, Nader turned to Eisterhold Associates, a Kansas City, Missouri-based museum design firm. The challenges were varied, says company president and creative director Gerard Eisterhold: complicated factual patterns, missing or inaccessible documents, fuzzy historical records and the sheer difficulty of showing someone who is not doing something. The ultimate goal, he says, wasn’t to teach tort law, but rather to expose visitors to the idea that tort law is a living, breathing thing. “We’re trying to convey a shape,” he says.
Nader hopes that the visitors will leave the museum to take sides and discuss what they saw: “In relation to what is fair, what is unjust, what rights different parties have, how far accountability should go and how far the compensation should go. ” (And if they want to leave the gift shop with a book or DVD, that’s great too.)
Although the doors of the museum are now open, the fundraising campaign continues. Nader says he needs millions more to advance plans for the second phase. This expansion will include a fully wired courtroom, facilities for more robust web and media functions, and additional exhibition space. Nader and Newman plan to host public events and professional seminars and hope to secure funding for traveling exhibitions one day.
“It’s a resource problem,” says Nader. “The ideas, the concepts, the excitement – it’s all there.”
This article originally appeared in the October 2015 issue of ABA-Journal with the headline: “A dream comes true: Ralph Nader opens his American Museum of Tort Law.”