There are about 35,000 museums in the world, but only one that has law as its subject. Located 25 miles northwest of Hartford, it’s the American Museum of Tort Law, in the small Litchfield County town of Winsted.
It’s not there by mere happenstance. Winsted is also the birthplace of Ralph Nader, the crusading consumer protection advocate and political activist. Nader was the force behind the creation of the museum, which opened in 2015, with the purpose of illustrating tort law’s contributions to society.
Connecticut is a fitting and evocative setting for such a museum. A central issue in tort law is who, if anyone, pays for injuries? Is fault necessary? And how should the burden of paying be shared? Risk and reward are rich themes in Connecticut’s history. Famed for being the cradle of the insurance industry, Hartford in the 19th century was the Silicon Valley of its time, nurturing American ingenuity and inventiveness in the manufacture of typewriters, bicycles and firearms.
Another root of tort law is the legal thinking behind it. Yale has contributed steadily to cutting-edge thinking about the economics, efficiency and practical fairness of the American tort system. Yale’s former law school dean, Guido Calabresi, senior judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, is the author of “The Cost of Accidents,” and is a renowned tort scholar.
The basic appeal of tort law, from a lawyer’s standpoint, is not just the lawyer’s fee award. On a more enduring level, it’s the opportunity to be part of making the world a better, safer place.
That progress has been happening all around us. The changing design of highways is one obvious example. Today giant yellow tubs of sand are positioned to absorb the impact of the inevitable out-of-control vehicle. The ends of highway guardrails now dive into the ground, or blunted, so the people in passenger compartments are not speared in a crash. A generation or two ago, this kind of preventive design was not uppermost in the minds of highway engineers. Tort trials—and verdicts—have changed that.
Sometimes the lesson of a tort case, and the resulting progress, is easy to identify.
In one dramatic case, a father was transporting a container of liquid propane gas for a family barbecue. He left the car for a moment with his children inside. The leaking tank accidentally caught fire and immolated them, as he watched helplessly. It came out at trial that a 25-cent plastic plug, in addition to the shut-off valve, could have prevented this tragedy. Such plugs soon became an industry standard feature.
In products liability cases—really a form of personal injury case—it is often a complex and daunting battle to prove causation. In tort cases that go to trial, plaintiffs often lose. The public, nevertheless, gets an exaggerated sense of plaintiffs’ courtroom success.
This is because plaintiff’s lawyering requires pubic recognition, and its practitioners have an incentive to make the most of every win. Conversely, insurance defense lawyers are less likely to seek publicity for a defense verdict, in which an injured person gets nothing.
To their discredit, pro-business public relations campaigns have a long history of painting plaintiffs cases as “frivolous.” They’ve had remarkable success. Surveys show that the public believes the United States has way too much civil litigation. A poll taken last November recorded 87 percent responding that the United States has “too many lawsuits.” In fact, only 5 percent of civil filings nationwide are for tort actions. In 1993, there were 10 lawsuits filed per 1,000 citizens. Today it is down to two per 1,000. In 1993, 16 percent of case filings were for tort matters, and by 2015 that was down to 4 percent, according to the annual reports of the National Center for State Courts.
This trend is bad news, says the Tort Museum’s director, Richard Newman.
Newman is a past president of the Connecticut Trial Lawyers’ Association and former partner in Bridgeport’s Adelman Hirsch & Connors. In his view, “It is bad to watch the erosion of the tort system, it is bad to watch the erosion of the court system, and worst of all, it is bad to watch the erosion of American faith in our system of civil justice.”
To counter that, we now have Winsted’s unique and educational tort museum. It illustrates the ways that the civil justice system has improved people’s lives. Spreading that message is sometimes an uphill battle, but it is the essential purpose behind the American Museum of Tort Law.
The museum occupies a former bank building, with the history of tort law illustrated in colorful comic-book graphics, films, and user-interactive displays. A shiny red Corvair, which starred in Nader’s “Unsafe at Any Speed,” is on display, along with revealing exhibits of injurious products. The bank vault itself, door ajar, is itself a museum-quality work of the machinist’s art.
The subject matter of the museum is ideas, and it does a good job of presenting challenging concepts in a concrete, family-friendly format designed to engage the attention.