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Inside Ralph Nader’s American Museum of Tort Law

The American Museum of Tort Law, which recently opened in Ralph Nader's hometown of Winsted, Connecticut, features exhibits on groundbreaking civil cases on auto safety, tobacco, asbestos, and many other issues. NewsHour's Phil Hirschkorn visited the museum to speak with Nader about his legacy and how the American legal landscape has evolved.

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  • PHIL HIRSCHKORN:

    The American Museum of Tort Law focuses on breakthroughs in product, worker, and consumer safety achieved through lawsuits mostly for wrongful injuries or deaths. Consumer crusader Ralph Nader founded the museum in his hometown of Winsted, Connecticut.

  • RALPH NADER:

    The three purposes of the law of wrongful injury, 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.

  • PHIL HIRSCHKORN:

    At 81, Nader still has faith in the jury system and champions civil court as a transparent venue that empowers regular citizens.

  • RALPH NADER:

    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.

  • PHIL HIRSCHKORN:

    Nader first gained national attention in 1965, when he documented dangerous cars in his book Unsafe At Any Speed. Exhibit A – the Chevrolet Corvair made by general motors. It's the museum's centerpiece.

  • RALPH NADER:

    It was not a stable car. It leaked carbon monoxide. The steering column starts a few inches from the leading surface of the front tires, so you get a collision like this, the steering column becomes a spear in the chest of the driver.

  • PHIL HIRSCHKORN:

    GM faced more than a hundred liability lawsuits, and Corvair sales plunged. A year later, congress passed a landmark car safety act.

  • RALPH NADER:

    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.

  • PHIL HIRSCHKORN:

    In fact, it changed standards for automobile manufacturing around the world. So did the case of the 1970's Ford Pinto after dozens of people were burned in collisions.

  • RALPH NADER:

    It had a fuel tank that could be penetrated on a rear end collision and spew the gasoline all over. And Ford knew it.

  • PHIL HIRSCHKORN:

    Nader says internal memos subpoenaed in a lawsuit revealed Ford had calculated it was cheaper to pay off dozens of accident burn victims than to fix the defect in millions of cars.

  • PHIL HIRSCHKORN:

    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?

  • RALPH NADER:

    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.

  • PHIL HIRSCHKORN:

    Nader credits civil lawsuits for stopping the sale of toys with parts that were choking hazards….and banning asbestos, an insulation material once widely used in construction but found to cause cancer.

  • RALPH NADER:

    The civil justice system is a backup system when the criminal justice system fails.

  • PHIL HIRSCHKORN:

    Nader says too often criminal prosecutors shy away from charging corporate executives. In the recent General Motors ignition switch defect, linked to more than 100 deaths, federal prosecutors settled for a 900 million dollar fine.

  • PHIL HIRSCHKORN:

    It seems to happen all the time as if it's a cost of doing business?

  • RALPH NADER:

    Well, it's not a cost of doing business when the corporation executives go to jail. It's amazing how much penalty a company can take if it's big enough, like General Motors or Volkswagen, and ride it out.

  • PHIL HIRSCHKORN:

    In the 1980s and 90s, lawsuits revealed tobacco companies knew about and hid the risks of smoking. The companies agreed to pay out more than 200 billion dollars.

  • RALPH NADER:

    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, which showed two things: one, that they knew from the get go that tobacco smoke caused serious ailments like lung cancer; and two, that they were deliberately marketing to young kids because they knew if they could hook them at 12 years age, they got them for life.

  • PHIL HIRSCHKORN:

    Over the years, Nader's critics have said the reforms and regulations he has advocated for have enriched trial lawyers and driven up the cost of business.

  • PHIL HIRSCHKORN:

    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?"

  • RALPH NADER:

    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.

  • PHIL HIRSCHKORN:

    The author of those Wisconsin studies says there was a rise in the number of civil cases into the 1980s, but it's since leveled off. In 2010, a Harvard law school study found Americans do file more lawsuits per capita than other industrialized democracies. But a new report by the national center for state courts found a slight drop in civil cases filed in the u-s in the past decade.

    Nader ran for president four times as a third party candidate and would like to the 2016 candidates focus more on consumer protection.

  • RALPH NADER:

    Although the law of wrongful injury affects millions of Americans every year, it's never discussed in political campaigns, except negatively.

  • PHIL HIRSCHKORN:

    What title do you prefer for yourself?

  • RALPH NADER:

    Public citizen. I think we all should be public citizens with a few hours every week. How else can our democracy work? How else can we have a good society?

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