Landmark Tort Cases Highlighted in Little Connecticut
Special Entry for the Verdict, edition #154 – FALL 2017 – By Bentley Doyle
Cases of enormous importance – giant landmark rulings – are highlighted in wee little Winsted – a tiny town in northern Connecticut, home to fewer than 10,000 residents, one of them being Mr. Nader (Ralph Nader) himself. He grew up there. His education and quest for fairness began naturally. His mother Rose was a well-known activist from Winsted. She made her views known through newspaper opinion pages and beyond. Her pioneering ways clearly made an impression on her son Ralph, and the fact this museum – evidently the only law museum operating in the US – was established in their town is a fitting feat indeed.
Advocates for the preservation of tort law will appreciate each exhibit and every bit of this American treasure. The museum, its staff and creators deserve praise for bringing it to life. Its conception was courageous. Its realization, an inspiration. It seems to have been built with equal parts of inspirational wisdom and aspirational desire. It is a museum of colour and strength that converges on the importance of accountability in law and in life, imbued with words and illustrations describing landmark rulings that were themselves the result of critically important legal efforts to make society a safer place – then, now and in the future.
The museum begins with key milestones of American history, outlining the fact that America adopted the English legal system, but that early US judges were uncomfortable over a system of liability without fault, which led the US to develop the idea of negligence in wrongdoings, i.e. torts. Obligations to pay or restore followed. Compensation for workers initially required them to prove that an injurious accident was the employer’s fault, but by 1911, as noted in the exhibits, some states began to pass compensation legislation that awarded limited monetary damages to injured workers regardless of fault. Obligations on businesses “and other defendants” – including state and local governments – expanded in the 1940s through 1960s, and strict liability followed in some cases, as did courts holding wrongdoers accountable for physical, economic and emotional harm. The roots of comparative and contributory fault/negligence took hold in the 1970s, but it was during the 1980s that businesses began to lobby against the tort system, and were successful in doing so. The museum’s resources point out that the business lobby overpowered its opponents in the political arena, which led to legislative restrictions that imposed arbitrary dollar limits on jury awards and unjustly restricted punitive damages. Social policies in the 1990s led governments to sue businesses (e.g. big tobacco companies were held accountable for the health costs created by their products).
The museum beautifully illustrates several ground-breaking legal precedents, such as the 1963 California strict liability case of Greenman v. Yuba Power Products, which established that a manufacturer of a flawed product is responsible for injuries caused by the product even if the manufacturer was not negligent in manufacturing it. Other cases highlighted (incidentally, I was told the illustrations were created by Matt Wuerker of Politico fame) include: the car accident case of Hoffman v. Jones (Florida 1973), the medical malpractice case of Canterbury v. Spence (Washington, DC 1972) and the car manufacturing case of MacPherson v. Buick (New York 1916). As the museum attests, the cases are the building blocks of righting wrongs in the United States, and the law evolves to meet the ever-changing needs of society.
Museum-goers get to watch a highly informative 11-minute film that clearly demonstrates the importance of tort law. From there, in the adjacent room ahead, several cases are described in key detail, each either famous, infamous or somewhere in between. Vitally important issues revolving around privacy rights, defamation and product liability (e.g. dangerous children’s toys) are skillfully referenced and displayed. The museum includes key praise for lawyer Edward M. Swartz (1934 – 2010) who wrote about hazards with toys and, as Nader says: “litigated and advocated for toy safety in the halls of Congress, before government agencies and through massive public education campaigns.”
The infamous McDonalds coffee case is deftly explained and explored, the injustice being what happened to the victim on many levels, all due to the wrongdoings of McDonalds and the arrogance and apathy the mega-corporation applied from the start. The light is shone on big tobacco, too. And a cherry red Chevrolet Corvair is the focal point of the last big display room, though the equally infamous Ford Pinto is also forced to a stop in the museum’s depictions.
Both my brother and I were impressed by everything the museum brought to light. The idea to make a stop there was mine, and I am grateful he played along, and I’m grateful to the people who put their hearts and souls into making the museum an important physical location for people to gain an education and appreciate the importance of civil law.
Justice has a place.