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The verdict? Ralph Nader’s Conn. tort law museum is a treasure

A Chevrolet Corvair on display in the American Museum of Tort Law.
A Chevrolet Corvair on display in the American Museum of Tort Law.

The American Museum of Tort Law is located not in Washington, D.C., where you might expect to find it, but in the small countryside town of Winsted, Conn. It’s an interesting choice for a museum that explores the benefits of tort law — the law of wrongful injury and trial by jury. But Winsted is the hometown of museum founder Ralph Nader, the former presidential candidate and consumer advocate.

The museum, which celebrated its first anniversary last month, features exhibits that are designed for all ages, from high school kids to senior citizens. “It is authentic, gives you questions to mull over,” says Nader, adding that he especially gets a kick out of the reaction of the many students who visit. “They ask, ‘We have these rights?’ ”

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You’ll find the American Museum of Tort Law in the renovated, repurposed Winsted Savings Bank, built just after the turn of the last century, with preserved vault and vault doors, striking examples of industrial art. “That is, they’re much more beautiful than they needed to be,” says Richard L. Newman, executive director of the museum.

Nader is still a Winsted resident (although he works and lives primarily in Washington, D.C.) and periodically swings by his museum. He recently spoke to museum guests in a well-attended program that was a bit unusual, says Newman. “It was, essentially, an open mike night, an opportunity for visitors to ask him questions. It was really cool. He will continue, I think, to participate in our programming from time to time.”

This election season is particularly meaningful for the museum’s offerings. “We just had a program on guns and Second Amendment, featuring remarks from both of Connecticut’s United States senators, Richard Blumenthal, and Chris Murphy,” says Newman. “We intend to continue thoughtful, informative and entertaining programming throughout the year.”

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The exhibits trace the evolution of tort law from its roots in the English common law, and its development over the years in the United States. A brief 12-minute film introduces visitors to tort law, and trial by jury, and discusses the importance of these two pillars of law. “There are many evocative displays in the museum and many center on groundbreaking cases which have benefitted all of us,” says Newman. “The displays are written in an easy-to-understand way making it fun and educational to find out how certain laws evolved.”

The American Museum of Tort Law.
The American Museum of Tort Law. Handout

Displays include the Grimshaw v. Ford Motor Co. (the Ford Pinto case) and Liebeck v. McDonald’s (the case about hot coffee). An interactive display also allows visitors to view important civil tort cases including one involving the Dalkon Shield (an IUD case from the early 1970s). A red Corvair is also on display — Nader wrote “Unsafe at Any Speed” namely about the shortcomings of the Corvair, and the car is displayed as a tie-in with an exhibit about the subsequent lawsuit brought by Nader against General Motors for the tort of invasion of privacy. “The proceeds from that successful lawsuit were used by Nader to fund the many civic organizations he has founded,” says Newman.

Another highlight is a gallery of toys that have harmed, illustrating how tort laws make us all safer, says Newman.

Next up: “We want to have a full-size courtroom,” says Nader. “We are raising funds for that now.”

And, while the museum’s location is certainly off the radar, there are high expectations for its success in the small-town setting. “Look at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown,” says Newman.

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Nader also just opened The Winsted Community Bookstore with the hope that the bookstore, which has an esoteric range of books, primarily nonfiction, will become a sought-out gathering place. “Communities are disintegrating,” says Nader. “We are trying to use the bookstore as a community attraction.”

The museum is open every day except Tuesday through Dec. 31 from 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.; private tours are available Jan. 1 through April 1. Admission is $7 adults and $5 for seniors and students. www.tortmuseum.org


Laurie Wilson can be reached at laurieheather@yahoo.com.