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December 22, 2015

How Ralph Nader defined consumer rights


A new museum highlights some of the nation’s most famous lawsuits which scored victories against tobacco and car companies that tried to hide deadly safety defects in their products.

Famed consumer rights advocate, lawyer and four-time third party presidential candidate Ralph Nader has opened the American Museum of Tort Law in his Connecticut hometown. The exhibits feature breakthroughs in consumer safety, including seat belts, safer cars and toy parts for children, achieved through lawsuits mostly for wrongful injuries or deaths and form the basis for tort law.

Nader put his faith in the jury system and the power of the civil courts to empower regular citizens who found themselves victims of faulty products. “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,” he said.

Nader first stepped into the national spotlight in 1965, when he documented dangerous cars in his book Unsafe at Any Speed, including the Chevrolet Corvair, one of which currently sits at the center of the museum.

General Motors faced more than 100 liability lawsuits, and a year later Congress passed a landmark car safety act, which included mandating safer brakes, better tires and seatbelts. “All the things we now take for granted,” Nader said.

However, Nader has also been criticized by politicians and corporate leaders who say such reforms made trial lawyers richer, drove up the cost of products and created a  lawsuit culture. In 2010, a Harvard law school study found Americans filed more lawsuits per capita than other industrialized democracies.

Nader dismisses such criticism, calling on everyone to be public citizens a few hours a week. “How else can our democracy work?  How else can we have a good society?”


consumer – a person who purchases products and services for personal use

tort law – a civil wrong that unfairly causes a person to suffer loss or harm resulting in legal liability for a person or organization

consumer protection – a group of laws and organizations designed to ensure individuals have accurate information about products in the marketplace

Warm up questions
  1. How would you define the term “consumer rights?”
  2. How can you tell if something you have bought is safe?
  3. Who is responsible for making sure that the cars on the road have working brakes and safety features?
Critical thinking questions
  1. What groups of people are most likely to view Ralph Nader in a positive light? A more negative light?
  2. Do you believe it’s important for the public to know the history of consumer rights and protections in the U.S.? Why or why not?
  3. Do you think some Americans take advantage of tort law and the civil court system to try to win big financial gains? Explain.
  4. Explain Ralph Nader’s statement that all Americans should be public citizens a few hours a week. Do you agree?
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