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Q&A: Ralph Nader on civil litigation, tort reform and his new museum

BY   December 19, 2015 at 2:24 PM EDT

Political activist, author, and former presidential candidate Ralph Nader can now add museum founder to his biography.

The American Museum of Tort Law, which recently opened in his hometown of Winsted, Connecticut, features exhibits on groundbreaking civil cases including auto safety, tobacco and asbestos.

PBS NewsHour’s Phil Hirschkorn visited the museum to speak with Nader about his legacy and the how the American legal landscape has evolved. Here is an excerpt of that conversation.

This Q&A has been edited for space and clarity.

WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 02:  Former presidential candidate Ralph Nader speaks during a news conference July 2, 2012 at Public Citizen in Washington, DC. Nader held a news conference to announce an "upcoming limited general strike to protest the colonial status of the District of Columbia and to support D.C. statehood."  (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Former presidential candidate Ralph Nader speaks during a news conference July 2, 2012 at Public Citizen in Washington, DC. Nader held a news conference to announce an “upcoming limited general strike to protest the colonial status of the District of Columbia and to support D.C. statehood.” Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

PBS NewsHour: Was this museum your idea?

Ralph Nader: Yes. It represents a system of defense for people who are wrongfully injured. The three purposes of the law of wrongful injury law, called tort law, is not just compensation of the wrongfully injured person by the perpetrator, not just disclosing defects that help educate and alert people, but it’s also deterrence. It deters unsafe practices around the country.

No one can stop you from going to a lawyer and filing a case in court to hold the perpetrator of your wrongful injuries accountable.

In that sense, it’s the most direct democracy instrument that people in this country have, and it’s all an open court with transcripts, with the media, with cross examination.

NH: The Corvair — what was wrong with that car?

RN: There were three things wrong. One, on the cornering, the maneuvers, it would fishtail and go out of control—more often than should have been the case, because it didn’t have a proper suspension system. G.M. wanted to cut corners and make a few extra bucks per car.

Second is the steering column that starts from the leading surfaces, of front tires, and it can jam right back into the driver in a left-front collision. 

And third, G.M. had recall most of the Corvairs, because of carbon monoxide leakage in the heater exchange system.  Otherwise, a beautiful car.

Nader speaks as he is interviewed by moderator Tim Russert  during a taping of "Meet the Press" at the NBC studios February 24, 2008 in Washington, DC. Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images for Meet the Press.

Nader speaks as he is interviewed by moderator Tim Russert during a taping of “Meet the Press” at the NBC studios February 24, 2008 in Washington, DC. Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images for Meet the Press

NH: Are cars across the board safer or is it better to say, certain safety procedures and oversight was put into effect?

RN: In 1966, September, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Motor Vehicle and Highway Safety Laws regulating the auto industry, mandating safety standards like better brakes, better tires, seatbelts, eventually airbags, padded dash panels — all the things we now take for granted. And it’s been a great success.

NH: Had you not done what you did with Corvair and the movement that started, we probably wouldn’t have seatbelts, airbags, and far fewer auto fatalities that we do today.

RN: It might have come sooner or later, but too late for hundreds of thousands of people. And the important thing is that it lifted up automobile manufacturing all over the world. The companies in Japan, Germany, and elsewhere had to sell into the U.S. market, so they had to raise their crash-worthy standards.

NH: Lately, we’ve had the Volkswagen diesel emissions cheating scandal, which the Environmental Protection Agency revealed. We’ve had the Toyota sticky pedal crisis, where lives were lost. And then more seriously the General Motors ignition switch defect, which caused more than 100 deaths. Is the system working?

RN: Now the National Highway Safety Administration has woken up. It’s got a new director; it’s being supported by Secretary of Transportation [Anthony] Foxx. Partly because of all these massive recalls getting huge publicity about the deaths, the injuries, the costs, and I think, we’re going to see a renaissance of NHTSA in the next few years.

Nader, the founder of Public Citizen Inc., holds a copy of his book "Unsafe at any Speed" before a Senate Consumer Protection, Product Safety, and Insurance Subcommittee hearing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on July 17, 2014. Photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images.

Nader, the founder of Public Citizen Inc., holds a copy of his book “Unsafe at any Speed” before a Senate Consumer Protection, Product Safety, and Insurance Subcommittee hearing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on July 17, 2014. Photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

NH: Do you think the civil justice system is adequate to provide the accountability that we need when it comes to regulating companies that are engaged in either misconduct or cover-up of misconduct?

RN: The history of successful cases, some of which are in this museum, illustrates that often the regulators and legislatures don’t wake up until some plaintiff gets a lawyers and digs out the cover-ups and the incriminating information about a safety defect in an automobile or another product. And the media picks it up and that leads to more broad-based upgrades in safety standards to protect the people.

The history of successful cases illustrates that regulators and legislatures don’t wake up until some plaintiff gets a lawyer and digs out the cover-ups about a safety defect in an automobile or another product.

NH: Is the civil system enough?  Should there be criminal prosecutions in some of these cases? 

RN: The civil system offers up the evidence that would induce criminal prosecution, but criminal prosecution by prosecutors is subject to political influence. The civil justice system is a backup system when the criminal justice system fails. Our political system right down to the prosecutor level is soft on corporate crime. They don’t adequate budgets, they get politically interfered with, it’s a tough haul coming up against a big corporation with a huge law firm defending it. 

NH: A cost of doing business?

RN: It’s not a cost of doing business when the corporation executives go to jail, and that’s why they fight so hard to make sure the prosecutors’ budget are very limited and that the campaign cash-greased lawmakers keep defending them against being held accountable.  When they get exposed for selling people dangerous or shoddy products they lose sales and the signal goes back to the company.

NH: In addition to civil court, when you talk about empowering the citizenry, there’s other tools. There’s, for example, social media, crowd sourcing, mass communication on so many levels how about that as tools for the citizens’ movement?

RN: The corporations are worried about their reputational damage and a lot of the social media inflicts that, but it’s hard to measure it.

NH: A lawsuit is more powerful than a tweet?

RN: Oh yeah. There’s no doubt about it. You see, one thing that tort law does, it gives the plaintiff’s lawyer, representing the wrongfully injured individual, the right to subpoena information from the inner files of these corporations.

Nader talks with labor leaders before addressing hundreds of members of National Nurses United and their supporters during a rally in Laffayette Square across from the White House before marching to the U.S. Treasury Department November 3, 2011 in Washington, DC. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

Nader talks with labor leaders before addressing hundreds of members of National Nurses United and their supporters during a rally in Laffayette Square across from the White House before marching to the U.S. Treasury Department November 3, 2011 in Washington, DC. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

NH: Give us an example of a case that had a wide impact that’s come through the tort system.

RN: Asbestos is a deadly material and it has caused the death of over a half of million Americans. It was heavily used in the shipyards in World War II and then used in a lot of other products, and it wasn’t until 30 years after World War II that the first case was brought in Tyler, Texas, and hundreds of thousands of workers or their next of kin, if the workers died, have been compensated because of the civil justice system. It was an injured worker finding a lawyer on a contingent fee in a little town in Texas that blew the top off one of the greatest industrial disasters in American history. And now, asbestos is almost entirely prohibited in this country.

It was an injured worker finding a lawyer on a contingent fee in a little town in Texas that blew the top off one of the greatest industrial disasters in American history. And now, asbestos is almost entirely prohibited in this country.

NH: What do you say to critics who would look back over these 50 years, these cases which you celebrate, and say, “You know what, Mr. Nader, you have a point, but it’s also turned us– the United States into a much more litigious society, where everyone’s first reflex is to sue somebody if they’re unhappy or injured.”

RN: Just the opposite. That’s insurance company propaganda. The center for state courts and studies by law professors at the University of Wisconsin show that we do not file more civil lawsuits per capita than Western countries, and stunningly that we file fewer civil suits per capita today than we did in the 1840s. There’s no better policy in a society then pursuing a health and safety of its people, and the tort system has proved that again and again. 

NH: There have been lawsuits for wrongful death in tobacco, waves of civil litigation, but it’s not like they really made cigarettes safer.  Did they?  What was the goal?

RN: The goal was to publicize the connection between tobacco smoking, cancer, heart disease, and get people voluntarily to stop, number one. The second was to get– the tobacco industry regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, and that’s occurred. And the third was to tone down some of this vicious cigarette advertising beamed to kids – Joe Camel and so on, and that’s pretty much by the wayside. And you know, it all started with these lawyers who often lost and lost in the courts until they started winning and divulging all  the internal documents of Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds.

NH: If it weren’t for those civil law suits, we never would have learned all of this?

RN: No, because the tobacco industry shut up the Congress, the Congress didn’t allow the Food and Drug Administration to regulate. It was a nice, comfortable circle lubricated by campaign cash.

NH: Even if you’re demonstrably damaged or injured or have a good grievance, the message is often it takes a really long time to get your case to trial in civil court, right?

RN: That’s right.

NH: You’re better off settling or now let’s go to arbitration.

RN: The corporations don’t like open courts of law, trials by jury. They want to privatize by pushing people into compulsory arbitration where they win most of the time and the whole process is pretty secret. And by so rigging the civil justice system with obstacles that the lawyers throw up their hands to too many wrongfully injured people and say, “I can’t afford to take this case.” And that’s what we want to turn around.

NH: An arbitration undermines that right, because the hearings are behind closed door, because the decisions are not appealable, or because the deck is stacked against the little guy?

RN: All of the above. Arbitration is private. It doesn’t have the tools to dig into the corporate files. It’s usually controlled by arbitrators who want repeat business from corporations not from the injured person. So there’s a bias there.

NH: Do citizens and consumers not have a choice to go to arbitration.  I thought it was maybe something you might choose instead of going to civil court and which takes more time.

RN: In some cases, they may have choice.  But in most cases, if they sign those fine print contracts with hospitals or with credit card companies, or with installment loan companies. They give up the right to go to court. 

NH: You’re seeing that now in the workplace as well between employers and employees?

RN: That’s right.  It’s epidemic of privatization of the law by corporate power to make sure that people don’t take them on in open courts of law where there’s a fairer process and trial by jury.

NH: What about campaign reform? Particularly, following Citizens United and the opening of the spigot to even more donations from corporations or, more likely, the leaders of the corporations that actually have the money and write the checks.

RN: If politics and elections are for sale, guess who’s going to be the highest bidder?  The powerful and wealthy, and they will in effect rent our political system and our government– to service them between elections. And I keep saying, one percent or less of this people pushing for change on an issue supported by a majority of the people can defeat the most powerful corporations and their political cohorts any day of the week.

NH: You’re long past the time of having any political ambition yourself, that sort of ship sailed?

RN: It did in 2008, because you know, trying to mount a third-party candidacy against a two-party tyranny that has all the laws rigged to keep you off the ballot, to harass you, to keep you off the debate is like climbing a cliff with a slippery rope. Our country places more obstacles in the way of voters going to the polls and more obstacles in the place of third party or independent candidates getting on the ballot, than any other Western country by far.

NH: Is this museum done, or might it expand in the future?

RN: We have a stage two expansion for a full-sized courtroom where we can stream all kinds of activities, and mock trials to all over the country and the world.

NH: Will you play the judge? 

RN: Maybe. We’ll all play our roles.

NH: A different kind of People’s Court.

RN: Yes.

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