Patti Smith Richard Blumenthal Eric Foner to Join Ralph Nader at Opening of First Law Museum in America

Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Patti Smith, Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut) and historian Eric Foner will be among those joining Ralph Nader at the opening of the first ever law museum in the United States — the American Museum of Tort Law in Winsted, Connecticut — on Saturday September 26, 2015.


Nader says the museum will be “dedicated to greater citizen understanding of the civil justice system and the crucial role this muscle of justice plays in protecting the health, safety and personal freedoms of all Americans.”

“The Museum’s exhibits will tell stories that illuminate the underlying principles of the law in accurate language readily understood. It will celebrate both the 7th Amendment to our constitution, which protects the right to trial by jury, along with the many substantive protections arising out of two centuries of judicial decisions throughout our country,” Nader said.

Museum executive director Richard Newman said that the dedication will be held between 11 am and 12 noon September 26 next door to the museum at the United Methodist Church at 630 Main Street in Winsted. (The Museum is at 654 Main Street.)

A larger convocation will then be held at the auditorium at the Gilbert School (200 Williams Avenue, Winsted) from 1:30 to 3 pm.

“Tort law is an important part of the law,” Newman told Corporate Crime Reporter in an interview last week. “It’s law that can potentially affect any human being in this country — anyone who rides in an automobile, or uses a product, or eats food, or is exposed to unsafe environmental or housing conditions — any human being who might become the victim of a wrongful injury. And that leads directly to the second part of the equation. Any person so injured has the right to go to court and seek redress for those injuries. You don’t need to ask government’s approval. You don’t need a permit. You don’t need to wait for a vote on an issue. The injured person can go directly to court, retain a lawyer on a contingent fee and seek redress.”

What will be in the museum?

“There will be three components in the museum as it exists now,” Newman said. “One will be a montage of the history of tort law from the English common law to today. Then there will be a section on precedent setting cases — the cases that shaped our law. And then finally, cases that made a difference. There will be a Corvair — because of Ralph’s book — Unsafe at Any Speed — that led to his litigation against General Motors. And the museum will highlight other significant cases that will help people understand how beneficial tort law is to their rights, their health, their safety and their freedom.”

What are some other cases?

“One is a case involving the Dalkon Shield, an unsafe birth control device that killed and crippled women around the world. It raises questions about corporate accountability and the ability to compensate people who are injured by these devices.”

“Another notorious case is the McDonald’s hot coffee case. That case was demonized as a crazy verdict, or a system run amok, when in fact, people who visit the museum will have a different look at that case. It stands as an example of a case that works the way it should have. McDonald’s was selling coffee that was dangerously hot and continued to do so after several hundreds of others were injured from the coffee. And in the Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants case, McDonald’s was finally held accountable by Stella Liebeck.”

Trial lawyers have a lousy reputation. Why?

“I don’t know exactly,” Newman said. “I have some ideas. One is defensive attribution. People recognize that they could also be the victim of some unforeseeable injury and say — that could never happen to me, that guy must be a loser, he’s different from me. People are predisposed to think — him, but not me.”

“Second, there has been a conscious effort — I don’t know by whom — to demonize the profession. Tort lawyers make corporations accountable. They impede corporate efficiency by exalting the value of human life. Corporations tend to not like tort lawyers and tort law because it holds them accountable at the expense of huge profits. They are naturally inclined to want to demonize the tort system and trial lawyers.”

“Third, the media attempts to look for sensational outcomes. They tend to be either glib or superficial or snarky in their approach. And they are willing to accept distorted versions of reality, as the hot coffee case exemplifies. The hot coffee myth gained traction. But the reality is much different.”

Why haven’t tort lawyers been effective in launching a counter offensive?

“Tort lawyers have for years suffered from being reactive,” Newman said. “They focus on a given case that they are handling. But there has been no real, effective national voice to counter this onslaught, to take a proactive stance — that this is a valuable system that works well, yes that can be improved, and it will continue to grow and change, but it’s working. There hasn’t been that kind of voice to counter these attacks — whatever the source. My own sense is that it has been a calculated attack on tort law. But I can’t prove that. I don’t know who is issuing those press releases or who is doing the demonizing.”

On the tort museum web site, there is a picture of a courtroom. Is there a courtroom in the tort museum?

“There is not yet,” Newman says. “That will be part of our phase two expansion. Right now, the museum will just be the exhibits in the existing building. As we grow and get more funding, we want to build a courtroom that will be fully interactive and can be streamed around the world. It will be a place where people can watch trial re-enactments, for law students to practice moot court, for high school students to sit as judge and jury in re-enactments of cases.”

“In addition, as part of the phase two expansion, I want to set up a Center for Scholarship and Study and have law students and faculty and other scholars to come in and research. And I want to expand our archival collection.”

You say it’s the first law museum of any kind in the United States. There are museums for almost everything. Why would this be the first law museum? What took so long?

“It may be like the fish who are not aware they are swimming in water,” Newman says. “We take the law so much for granted that it’s overlooked. That may be one reason. Another is that it’s not treated as importantly as it should be. Civics is no longer taught in school. People regard it as mysterious or distant from them or something they just take for granted. And no one has stopped them and said — look, this is notable and worthwhile — let’s study it, celebrate it and learn about it. I don’t have a good answer. Those are speculations.”

A few years ago, Corporate Crime Reporter published a list of the top fifty corporate crime movies. Many of them of focused on tort law cases — A Civil Action, Erin Brockovich. Many of them would fit well into a Tort Museum theater. Will there be a theater at the tort museum?

“Yes,” Newman said. “As the building grows and expands, we can grow and expand the theater as well. Right now, there is a small theater with media facilities to be set up to show movies. We plan to have occasional activities and events at the museum, including authors and speakers, but also movies.”

Why is the museum in Winsted, Connecticut?

“It’s halfway between New York and Boston in the heartland of the industrial revolution,” Newman said. “It’s close to a number of law schools. It’s Ralph Nader’s hometown. It’s an area where it is economically much more feasible to create a museum than in a larger major metropolitan area. A lot of museums do very well in smaller communities. Cooperstown, New York, with the Baseball Hall of Fame, has a population of about 2,000 people.”

[For the complete q/a transcript of the Interview with Richard Newman, see 29 Corporate Crime Reporter 35(12), September 21, 2015, print edition only.]

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