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Where We Live by John Silveira and Richard Blunt. Photos and commentary from Oregon and New England.

Want to Comment on a blog post? Look for and click on the blue No Comments or # Comments at the end of each post.



Ralph Nader’s Museum of Tort Law

Friday, January 1st, 2016

In September of 2015, Ralph Nader, an active consumer advocate and former presidential candidate,  opened this country’s first and only law museum in a vacant bank building on Main St. in his hometown of Winsted, Connecticut. In 2014, the Washington Post reported that there are about 35,000 museums in this country. That’s more than all of the Starbucks locations and McDonald’s restaurants combined. However, there is only one museum dedicated to any aspect of law, and this is it.

What the heck is a tort? Well, a tort is a wrongful act that can be the foundation for a lawsuit. For example: If you having an argument with someone and you punch that person, you can be charged with the crime of assault. The person that you punched can also sue you for the tort of battery. Tort law is essentially personal-injury law that provides us ordinary citizens with legal protection from attacks on civil justice.

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The museum contains detailed descriptions of some high profile tort law cases that acquired justice for individuals.

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Chevrolet Corvair

This controversial book , first published in 1965, confronted American car manufacturers for resisting the installation of safety features in their cars. The design disasters incorporated into the 1960-1964 Chevrolet Corvair are the most widely known subjects in the book. The museum has a pristine 1963 Corvair on display that details the car’s most serious design flaw, the rear-mounted gas tank, which was prone to exploding if the car was involved in a crash, particularly if it were rear-ended.

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The dangerous rear-mounted gas tank

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Lee Iacocca, the American auto executive best known for spearheading the development of the Ford Mustang and Ford Pinto, and for the 1979 bailout of the Chrysler Corporation. In 1968, Iaccoca decided to develop a Ford model to compete with Japanese cars being sold in the small car market in this country. He convinced Ford’s board of directors to green-light the development, production, and sale of the Pinto. During the production cycle, several design flaws were discovered in the fuel tank. Low-speed, rear-end crash testing indicated that these flaws could create a serious risk of fire in a crash. After a cost-benefit analysis revealed the cost of correcting the problem, Ford decided to continue production as initially planned. In 1974 the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration began investigating crashes that were reported as being related to the problem. In 1977, an article in Mother Jones magazine exposed the Pinto’s fire danger, and revealed Ford internal documents that the company knew about the potential problem. In that year a court in Orange County, California, awarded $125 million in damages (later reduced to$3.5 million) to a driver who had been injured in a low-speed accident when his Pinto burst into flames. In 1978, all 1971-1978 Pintos were recalled and upgraded. It isn’t clear if Iacocca was aware of the problem during the design phase of the Pinto. But it is reported that one his frequent utterances was, “Safety doesn’t sell.”

Case of the Flaming Rat

The illustration below shows William Daniels, an employee of the United Novelty Company in the 1940s. Here he is using gasoline to clean a piece of  machinery in a small 8×10-foot room that also housed a working gas heater. Court testimony states that the gasoline leaked through the machine and soaked a rat hiding underneath. The rat bolted, and took cover under the gas heater that had a working pilot flame. The rat’s gas-soaked fir caught on fire and it ran back to the machine that Daniels was cleaning, resulting in an explosion that killed them both. Daniel’s estate sued the company for wrongful death. Evidence was presented that the company  knew of the dangerous cleaning procedure, and issued memos forbidding it. The jury found for the plaintiff , and the verdict was upheld by the Mississippi Supreme Court. In the court’s opinion, the company had an obligation to insure that its policies were being followed. No evidence was presented at trial that the employee had been warned. A modern term for this would be “negligent supervision.” In other words, it was the company’s responsibility to warn all of its employees not to use gas around open flames, and to enforce this warning with supervision.

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The Case of Rose Cipollone

(Cipollone v. Liggett Group — 1988)

Rose started smoking in her early teens. She died of lung cancer at age 58. In 1988, a New Jersey jury awarded her husband $400,000 after the jurors discovered that, before 1966, when Rose started smoking, the company failed to warn of the health risks of smoking its products. The jury also found that the company’s advertisements gave an expressed warranty that cigarette smoking was safe, and the company had breached that warranty. In 1986, The Federal Trade Commission amended The Federal Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act of 1966 with the Smoking Education Act in 1986, requiring that cigarette packages include a health warning that smoking cigarettes may be hazardous to health.

Do any of you folks recognize the handsome young man in the photo on the bottom-right of this billboard? Look closely at the signature.

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