“They called her a pig.”
Every legend has its origin myth, and I was lucky enough to hear Ralph Nader’s myth Saturday. It might as well be the origin myth for fairness in modern America. The setting was a speech at the opening of a museum in northern Connecticut that Nader called the first museum devoted to law. Consumer law, anyway.
The American Museum of Tort Law might not have a snazzy name, but if you think of it as a museum for little victories by David over Goliath, it becomes a lot more alluring.
Nader’s tale went something like this: Asked why he was so tenacious in taking on companies like General Motors, he recalled a moment from his childhood. A little girl, now 12, who had been in his class since first grade was suddenly the target of teasing by boys in the class. Nader danced around the insults they hurled at her, until finally, he said, they called her “a pig.” Then they ran off giggling, and Nader watched the girl crumple in sadness.
Nader watched it all unfold, trying to make sense of it. The boys had known the girl for years, and she was kind and pleasant, so this behavior was a shock. When he got home, he told his mother what had happened. Her reply was simple:
“Well, what did you do?”
A consumer crusader was born.
“I hate bullies,” Nader went on to say. Now 81, he’s spent most of his life trying to fight them.
Nader is a complicated figure, and you might have a terrible opinion of him. But there is no removing his historical place as the founder of the American consumer movement. He’s responsible for seat belts in cars, along with countless other safety mechanisms in products we use every day. Casual observers probably don’t know that Nader has founded dozens of independent consumer organizations that still operate today. He is at the head of a large family tree, probably thousands of branches deep, that includes people who’ve fought for everything from bank fee transparency to toy safety.
This weekend, in his little hometown of Winstead, Connecticut, Nader opened his museum to tort law. It’s a lot more clever and fun than you might expect. Cartoon panels tell the story of landmark cases, like Sioux City & Pacific vs Stout, in which a railroad company was held liable for an injury to a child who played on its equipment, even though the child had trespassed. (The firm knew kids were playing there and didn’t do anything to stop them or protect them).
A hot red Corvair, the car that was the subject of the book Unsafe At Any Speed, dominates the central room. You might be inclined to think of it as a sort of presidential library, but it’s not just about Nader. It reaches all the way back into English common law to explain the current state of the American consumers.
Every exhibit illustrates a tale of David vs. Goliath.
A slate of speakers opened the place, many listing their favorite Erin Brockovich tale, and all with the same point: The ability to drag a corporate executive into court and force him or her to face public accusations of misdoing is critical to a fair society. Given the recent Volkswagen scandal, it should be clear that the ability of consumers to demand fair treatment from corporations is as important as ever.
Americans’ rights are the envy of the world. But of course, they are far from perfect. Class action lawyers often make millions, while victims walk away with pennies, that’s true. Other victims can’t interest lawyers in their cases if they aren’t worth a lot of money, a real shortcoming in a world where corporations have perfected massive scale, nickel-and-dime scams.
Still, having someone to call and someplace to go when you’ve been wronged is critical to the preservation of the American way of life, and it should be celebrated. More important, the history of concepts of like negligence and accountability should be preserved and understood by future generations. That’s what museums do.
And after all, if there can be museums for maple syrup and mustard, why not consumer rights?
The American Museum of Tort Law is on Main Street in Winstead, Connecticut. It will be open daily, except Tuesdays, from 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m, but closed in January.
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