Nader's latest crusade: a museum to getting even In an old factory in his Connecticut hometown, consumer advocate Ralph Nader envisions a museum devoted to tort law and its practitioners.

August 02, 1998|By Jonathan Rabinowitz | Jonathan Rabinowitz,NEW YORK TIMES

WINSTED, Conn. - Who would want to visit a museum dedicated to the seemingly arcane topic of tort law?

Indeed, it would be hard to blame the people of this old mill town for seeming a bit skeptical that a proposed museum to honor some of the most reviled professionals in the country - trial lawyers - was a sure-fire way to transform their downtown into a mecca for weekend visitors.

But listen to Ralph Nader, this town's most famous native son, as he details his dream of a Museum of American Tort Law.

"There'll be the Pinto with the exploding gas tank, flammable pajamas, asbestos and breast implants, the whole history of medical malpractice, and of course the more recent toxic pollution, like Love Canal," Nader says.

The project manager, Fred Hyde, said there even would be a gift shop that would sell "the tchotchkes of tort law."

"You know, like models of defective toys, products that were taken off the market," added Hyde, a consultant with degrees in both medicine and law. "We don't want to trivialize it, but we want to have a way to memorialize the visit" to this shrine to personal-injury law.

Nader has taken steps toward making his vision for a family outing into reality. He already has the building - a 19th-century factory that used to make fixtures for coffins - and he has raised $1 million of the $5 million he needs for construction and start-up.

His vision, of course, has a distinctly political edge. He is promoting the museum at a time when business groups have been pushing Congress to pass legislation, known as tort reform, that would restrict their liabilities and limit damages.

The museum, scheduled to open in late 1999 or early 2000, is clearly intended to cast a more positive light on the practices that have resulted in large jury awards to consumers who bought questionable products.

Indeed, proponents of tort reform dismiss the whole idea as little more than propaganda for trial lawyers.

"Mr. Nader should make sure to have ample parking space for trial lawyers' his-and-her Learjets," mocks Lester Brickman, a professor at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University.

Other critics have wondered aloud about the potential perils of opening such a museum.

Would it be able to serve hot coffee in a museum cafe for fear of scalding customers' mouths? Should display cases be built without sharp corners that could accidentally cut frisky children? And will lawyers whose work is portrayed in a less-than-flattering light sue for defamation?

Nader, who rose to prominence in 1965 with his book "Unsafe at dTC Any Speed," revealing the design flaws of the Chevrolet Corvair and other automobiles, says the American tort system has not been adequately appreciated by the public.

"Tort law, the law of personal injury, was a major step on the march to justice," says Nader, 64. "There's been a lot of attention to civil liberties but not to physical integrity - how our law protects the physical integrity of human beings from harmful behavior, unsafe products, toxic chemicals or auto crashes."

While some people here wonder who would come to this museum, its boosters maintain that educational tourism is booming and that the number of specialty museums is growing rapidly .

"This country has a lantern museum, a garlic museum, 63 medical museums and 31 lumber and timber museums, not to mention a museum on every conceivable sport," Nader says. "But no law museum."

Nader has solicited design proposals from several prominent museum-design firms. The tort museum was incorporated in Connecticut earlier this year.

The $5 million they hope to raise by the end of the year will be used to renovate the factory building, establish a Web site and cover administration costs.

In the future, Nader says he hopes to raise another $5 million so that the museum can lease exhibition space in Washington and hold conferences in Winsted.

The museum is supposed to be interactive. Nader says that one area could have re-enactments of famous trials where visitors could hear the same testimony that actual jurors once heard.

And there will be artifacts, Hyde promises, noting that he wanted to find a vintage Corvair or an old Pinto fuel tank. Already, lawyers are calling to donate trial exhibits to the museum's collection.

Trial lawyers have to capture a jury's interest, and there are warehouses full of elaborate trial displays across the country, Hyde said. "They're like Hollywood," he added. "Like seeing Spielberg in a courtroom."

Pub Date: 8/02/98

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.