In a nation populated by phony public figures and demagogic academics, it was refreshing last Saturday to see an honest group of them unite for the common cause of justice for the deserving.
That’s what I was struck by at the unveiling of the American Museum of Tort Law in Winsted. With the opening of the museum, Ralph Nader, still a hometown boy at 81, fulfilled a dream he has had for almost 20 years after visiting a trial attorney in Colorado.
He asked the lawyer what happens to all those exhibits and graphics on easels that are used during the trials — to which the man replied that most of them are are simply thrown away.
That got Nader to thinking — not about filing a lawsuit, but about building a first-in-the-nation shrine to lawsuits. More than 30 years earlier, Nader had written the seminal work, Unsafe At Any Speed, which accused auto manufacturers, including the maker of the dangerous Chevrolet Corvair, of staunchly resisting any efforts to introduce safety measures that might save lives. Now a shiny red Corvair sits in its own exhibit at the former Winsted Savings Bank on Main Street.
It took him more than 15 years to find a suitable venue and raise the $3 million necessary to renovate the bank. But if the passion of Nader and his guests is any indication, he will have a successful second career as the owner of a tourist attraction.
The 6,500-square-feet museum lacks a full-sized courtroom and event space (that’ll cost another $5 million that Nader hopes to someday raise). Eventually Nader wants to have students hold mock court trials and stream the cases online to schools and colleges, hoping to eventually attract viewers to visit the actual museum — and presumably give money.
Nader said the civil courts are in a state of “crisis” and are “under attack domestically and institutionally,” as “court budgets are being cut and victims are being treated with enormous arrogance.” Furthermore, there are “restrictive obstacles to people getting their day in court.”
Turning to Sen. Richard Blumenthal, Nader added, “I really hope a Senate committee will have open hearings on these things . . . We need to look out for the larger issues of justice in this country.”
When he got up to speak, King of Torts Blumenthal, who as state attorney general for 20 years has probably filed more lawsuits in Connecticut than anyone on the planet, spoke of imposing “robust criminal penalties” on large corporations — a favorite target of Nader’s. It was a rare moment of politics in an otherwise straightforward appeal for fairness and justice.
At the dedication ceremony, speakers included Harvard Law Prof. Alexa Shabecoff, populist author and maverick lawyer Carl Mayer, and former Georgetown Law Center Prof. Joseph A. Page. Page was a classmate of Nader’s at Harvard Law School. Nader friend and punk rocker Patti Smith even sang a ballad.
“It’s a wonderful feeling to see this idea that came into being more than 15 years ago become a reality,” Page said.
Like any cause, tort law has seen its share of excesses. Some, such as the McDonald’s coffee-burn case, are seen as excesses but in reality are not. Others such as the medical malpractice lawsuits brought by former Sen. John Edwards, have surely had the effect of making an already expensive healthcare system even pricier.
I’m a firm believer in the right to seek redress in the courts, not only against big corporations but against small companies and individuals who screw you. My wife and I once sued a septic system company that “inspected” the system on the house we bought in Lakeville in 2002. The company’s inability or unwillingness to report that the septic system was on the verge of failure cost us more than $30,000.
The problem I have with lawsuits lies in punitive damage awards, which are imposed not to compensate the victim but to punish the defendant. Punitive damages, which greatly exceed compensatory damages and are typically awarded to the plaintiff, are unusual but they’re growing in both size and frequency.
Fortunately, Connecticut is one of the more than 20 states in the country that limits the amount that can be awarded in punitive damages. I see no reason why punitive damages should be awarded to plaintiffs and, by extension, their lawyers. Put the punitive damage awards aside and give them to charities that help individuals who have been similarly victimized. Or in the case of Connecticut, put them in the treasury to help solve our “state of permanent fiscal crisis.”
Heck, it would be better than taxing the poor through keno. Whaddaya say, Ralph?
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