The 7th Amendment to the Constitution states that, “In Suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved.” Champions of consumer rights hold that principle dear–that even the lowliest citizen can go against a powerful adversary, including a multinational corporation, and have her case heard before a jury of her peers.
And now one of the nation’s most renowned consumer advocates, Ralph Nader, has built a museum to honor our great American tort system. Nader wrote the iconic Unsafe at Any Speed 51 years ago, an expose of Chevrolet’s decision to build and sell the Corvair, a dangerously designed sedan whose wheels had a tendency to tuck under and collapse on turns. Nader’s muckraking work spawned Nader’s Raiders–a generation of activists who launched number of consumer groups–and led to launch of a federal auto safety agency, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in 1967.
I traveled to Nader’s birthplace of Winsted, Connecticut this past weekend, the home of the American Museum of Tort Law, for the museum’s “Spring Reawakening” featuring Nader and two legendary plaintiffs’ lawyers. The hall was filled with fans of Nader, of all ages, who came to hear these champions of the little guy tell their stories.
The first storied lawyer who spoke was Mitchell Garabedian, the Boston lawyer who uncovered decades of child abuse hidden by the Archdiocese of Boston. Stanley Tucci played Garabedian in the film Spotlight, which won the 2016 Academy Award for Best Picture.
Garabedian described the despair of his victims, mostly young men who were abused by priests. The victims confided in Garabedian that they had considered suicide and had a difficult time living normal lives. Garabedian exposed the Archdiocese pattern of not dismissing the abusing priests, but instead transferring them to parishes where they abused again. Garabedian refused to back down and uncovered evidence of a cover-up, which ended in million dollar settlements for his clients.
The second legendary plaintiff who spoke was Jan Schlichtmann, who represented families in Woburn, Massachusetts who were suffering from an epidemic of leukemia after subsidiaries of the WR Grace and Beatrice Foods had been dumping toxic chemicals into their water system in the 1980’s. Schlichtmann was portrayed in the book A Civil Action, written by Jonathan Harr, and a movie of the same name.
Schlichtmann also faced a wall of denial and character assassination from his corporate adversaries. They denied that the spike in cancer in Woburn’s children had anything to do with industrial waste in the water. He ultimately proved the link between the two and also won million dollar settlements for his clients.
Nader, with his Tort Museum, noted that the United States was unique in having a system where an individual with a strong case could find a lawyer at no cost, because of the contingent fee system. That system means that lawyers get paid only if they win, and the client is represented at no cost. He also pointed out that while litigants might sometimes file “frivolous suits,” something opponents of our tort system trot out constantly, the system is very good at ferreting out the truly meritless or frivolous lawsuits.
I found the American Tort Museum to be educational and substantive, but also fun to tour. It has four or five rooms of exhibits, a film that runs continuously, a red Corvair in living color on display, and the space is light and cheerful. The Museum documents cases from the earliest days of the Republic, like a barrel rolling out into the street and injuring a bystander, and tracks landmark tort cases, including the 82-year old woman who suffered serious burns from McDonald’s coffee–whose case has been mocked as frivolous. It turns out there were hundreds of complaints to McDonald’s about the dangerous temperature of their coffee and the woman asked them simply to cover her medical bills of $15,000 or so and they refused.
The theme of Nader’s American Museum of Tort Law is average citizens using our court system to keep the rich and powerful accountable, something the National Consumers League (NCL) very much believes in and supports. These are the historic cases and narratives you’ll learn about when you tour the museum.
NCL Executive Director Sally Greenberg with Jan Schlictmann.