Ralph Nader has had quite a life. But now the legendary consumer advocate and Winsted’s native son is set to embark on a second career at 81 years of age: owner of a tourist attraction.
Get ready for the nation’s first museum celebrating lawsuits. That’s right. The American Museum of Tort Law will be a national shrine dedicated to torts, lawyers, juries, judges, and legal briefs.
Not exactly the stuff that will put the state on a par with Boston or even Cooperstown. And I think it’s safe to say that Mystic Seaport and the Peabody Museum of Natural History won’t have to worry about being supplanted as the top tourist destinations in Connecticut.
Still, one can’t help but be intrigued at what’ll await the nerdy throngs lining up to take in the exhibits when the 6,500-square-feet tort museum has its grand opening Sept. 26 in the former Winsted Savings Bank building on Main Street.
As I’ve written before, a running joke in Winsted since the museum was first proposed was what will Nader do when the first person slips and falls on the steps of his tort museum?
My initial reaction in 1998 when I first learned of Nader’s plans to turn an abandoned factory into the museum was he’d better include the styrofoam cup from the infamous McDonald’s hot-coffee case. No to worry. The museum will tell the full story of Stella Liebeck, who suffered third-degree burns after she opened a cup of McDonald’s coffee in her car. In 1992, Liebeck was awarded $2.86 million but the payout was eventually reduced to $640,000. The case became a poster child for frivolous lawsuits, though many legal scholars, including Nader himself, dispute that distinction.
“I’m constantly astounded how a country can go over 200 years and not have a law museum and still brag about being a country with a rule of law,” Nader told The Wall Street Journal. “There are museums for major fruits, vegetables, garlic, every sport imaginable, lanterns, the most bizarre subjects you can imagine, and no law museum.”
Fair enough. If Nader can make a go of it, the more power to him. My feelings about Nader are pretty much the same I have for the ACLU or the NRA. They sometimes go too far but I’m glad they’re out there advocating their points of view. And to Nader’s credit, he’s been out there watching out for all of us when, with his stellar credentials, he could have been a Wall Street lawyer and made perhaps hundreds of millions.
Town historian Milly Hudak says she looks forward to the museum but says not everybody in the community shares her sentiment. “I don’t think people are going to get excited,” she told The Journal. “How many people, if you said to them, ‘There’s going to be a tort museum,’ they’ll say, ‘What’s a tort?’”
Part of the lukewarm reaction has to do with the Nader family’s complicated relationship with their home town. On the one hand, Nader is respected and admired for a body of work that has surely saved many lives since he wrote his groundbreaking book “Unsafe At Any Speed.” With his brother, Shafeek, Nader is credited with helping to bring Northwestern Connecticut Community College to town. And several years later, The Shakeef Nader Trust made a $20,000 donation that helped build the Rowley Street playground.
Still, he is widely seen as having done little for Winsted beyond emphasizing his modest roots as the son of a Lebanese immigrant diner owner. Nader’s biography on his official website doesn’t even mention the town.
And there are the episodes that have generated ill will. Guided by Nader and headed by his sister, Claire, a charity founded to save the old Winsted Memorial Hospital came under sharp attack for its secretive and autocratic tactics, prompting a lawsuit from dissidents. And there was also the ill-fated attempt on the part of Nader and his sister to “save” the Hinsdale School and Nader’s subsequent description of Winsted as a place that “has always been known for its apathy.”
The Naders have bought several buildings over the years, including the dilapidated Dano Electric building on Main Street. They have done nothing with it beyond establish and fund the office of the “community lawyer.” Critics have charged that the tax-exempt operation is little more than a front for advancing the Naders’ interests.
Nader’s national reputation is his local reputation writ large. Even those who otherwise admire Nader for his tenacity and courage in seeking justice for those who deserve it are troubled by his vanity run for president that surely helped elect George W. Bush in 2000.
It’s hard to see how the tort museum will do much for Winsted beyond a few visitors buying lunch at Mario’s or The Tributary. As for those who are upset at Nader taking yet another property off the tax rolls to establish his museum, he has the perfect rejoinder: “So sue me!”
Correction: Town historian Milly Hudak says she is happy that Ralph Nader is opening a tort museum in her community. A previous version of this post was based on a Wall Street Journal quote that incorrectly suggested that she’s not supportive of Mr. Nader’s project.
Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, blogs at ctdevilsadvocate.com and is news editor of The Berkshire Record in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill.
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