Saturday, October 17, 2015

American Museum of Tort Law

My home town when I was 10 
Preamble: This blog entry comes with musical accompaniment, so in another window go to
same place today, 65 years later
 and listen as you read.  And when “The Hills of My Connecticut” finishes playing, you may want to avoid the following linked YouTube, “DaStreetz,” which would only bring you up to date on the current state of my birth state.  Which is not necessarily a good idea.  With some things you really ought to stop while you’re ahead.

Friend Linda just sent me an e-mail with a heads-up on a major event in my hometown of Winsted, Connecticut.  Major events don't occur in these little outposts of the industrial revolution very often. There was a flood in 1955, when I was 15, that wiped out one entire side of Main Street.  The devastation was so bad it never got rebuilt.  By the time I got to high school they had torn down the train depot, where you once could take a train into New York or Boston, and the only time we left town was to go to Nova Scotia where my father could hunt deer and moose and my mother could be even more bored than she was in Winsted. We dreamed from early on, my friends and I, of escape from this Nowheresville.  It may have been hopping in 1900 when there were 100 or more factories and 9000 inhabitants in Winsted, but by the 1950s they were all moving South, where factory owners were able to find non-union labor.  Winsted and all the towns of "brass valley," where the nation's clocks, woollens, toasters, pins and brass products were generated, just sort of went to sleep.

But apparently, not forever.  These days Winsted folk can wake up in the morning knowing their little town has a brand new museum.   A Museum of ... wait for it... Tort Law!   The only one of its kind in the world.  Just opened a couple weeks ago.

Winsted has two sons of some repute.  And they actually grew up together.  One is David Halberstam, of Norman Mailer and Pulitzer Prize fame, author of The Best and the Brightest, the book that tore to shreds the ill-fated policies of Kennedy and Johnson in Vietnam.  The other is Ralph Nader, who I assume needs no introduction or explanation.

Going back to Winsted always sends me into Future Shock.  I don't do it physically anymore; my 45th and 50th high school reunions were enough.   This online visit was no exception.  First thing I did was go to Google Maps and search for 654 Main Street, the address of this new museum. After some considerable confusion (see the addendum below) I discovered it was once a bank, and it is right next to the Methodist Church where I was a teenager wonder-organist.  Or so my grandmother believed, anyway.  I doubt I could have identified the bank even then.  Not on a teenager's radar.  So Ralph apparently gave up the original plan of using the old mill his family owned - I have no idea why anybody would want one.  In high school I worked part time in the Hosiery, pushing carts of yarn hither and yon, trying hard and often failing not to get the wheels caught in the gouges in the old wooden floors.

In any case, Ralph seems to have tossed that idea in favor of "one of the most attractive buildings in Winsted," if its web page can be believed.  It has "most of its original architectural features still in place...great stone work...dramatic custom trim work in the lobby," etc. etc. "Would make a great restaurant, dramatic office or gallery."

Ralph's father ran a restaurant.  We used to stop by the Highland Arms after school when I was in high school, well before we knew we would be citing that fact for the rest of our lives, so his three children could really go places, and I doubt he spent much time considering that possibility.  And, by the way, if you want to hear Ralph's reminiscences of growing up in Winsted, there's a wonderfully nostagic interview available here.

Go to the museum’s Face Book page and have a listen to Ralph explaining how excited he is about tort law, and why he thinks it is worth a museum.  It will make you glad you voted for him and maybe stop blaming him for giving the election to George Bush.  He blames it on Gore.  I blame it on the Democrats who didn’t vote.  He also explains why we are wrong to sneer at the million-dollar settlement to that woman who burned herself on McDonald’s coffee. (Turns out it was only half a million.)

You may have guessed that I’m a huge fan of Ralph Nader.  Not just because we both grew up in the same small New England town and went to the same high school – and because I ate many meals after school at his family’s restaurant.  But because he represents the values of New England a lot of people laugh at (because they seem so hokey) until they get past the obvious stereotypical thinking.  People we knew as Republicans when I was a kid.  The kind of Republicans Lincoln would have been proud of.  Also sometimes known as "Rockefeller Republicans."  And a whole bunch of other self-sufficiency types.  Not the knuckle-draggers who have taken over the party today.

Full disclosure: I have not been to this museum.  So this is a heads-up, rather than a well-founded recommendation.

But if you’re still driving around looking at the New England fall foliage, Winsted is plunk in the middle of the “Foothills to the Berkshires” and takes no back seat to anybody when it comes to the splendors of autumn in New England.  I can definitely recommend that.

And I’ll wager, the American Tort Museum will not be a waste of time, either.

The Museum was featured on the NPR comedy program, “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me,” where guests hear three highly unlikely stories and have to guess which one of them is actually true.  Comedian and satirist (and all-around right-of-center kind of guy) P. J. O’Rourke was brought in as one of the story-tellers:

O'ROURKE: What is it with painfully stupid museums? I mean, there is a roller skating museum in Nebraska, a hammer museum near Juneau and a dentistry museum in Baltimore. And now there's one that hurts even worse - Ralph Nader's The American Museum of Tort Law in Winsted, Conn.
O'ROURKE: I mean, America needs a museum of tort law like France needs a museum of military retreat.
O'ROURKE: On display is a 1963 Corvair - unsafe at any speed except this one, it's bolted down - plus fascinating interactive displays about asbestos, flaming Ford Pintos, overheated McDonald's coffee and car seats without seatbelts. There's even a kiddy corner full of toys called Toys That Kill. I'm going to the American Museum of Tort Law today and trip and fall on the doorstep.

The guest got the right answer.  This story was the real one.

Nader spent years raising money for the museum and put in $50,000 of his own funds.  Eventually he reached something like two million dollars and was ready to roll.  Most of the donors were lawyers, although Phil Donohue is listed among them as well.  Punk rock-and-roller Patti Smith, an old friend of Ralph’s, sang at the opening ceremony.  Patti speaks of her love for Ralph as a person who can make you feel "happily ashamed."  

Nader’s goal is easily flipped off as an ego-trip.  How often do you get a museum in which all your professional successes are featured displays?  Like the Corvair of Unsafe at Any Speed or the infamous Ford Pinto with a gas tank that was likely to blow up if the car was rear-ended,  or the Dalkon Shield, the unsafe intrauterine device.  Seatbelts.  Air bags.  So much history of consumer protections.  People today may be more likely to remember the McDonald’s coffee story.  But what you remember says a lot about whether you see Nader's life work as heroic, and to what degree.  And, of course, whether you can forgive him for running for president.

The idea came to him, Nader says, when a friend asked him once what happens to all those splendid exhibits he constructs when making his presentations in court.   What a shame, he commented, to let all that work go to waste.

The museum, if you've followed his career, probably honors Nader’s loyal team of Nader’s Raiders, as much as it does Nader.  And while it may boost his ego in the process, it is also proof that Nader, now 81 years of age, is still going about his business poking a stick at irresponsible government. When asked why his name appears nowhere on the face of the building or the exhibits, he demurs. The successes represented here are due to the labors of thousands of hard-working lawyers, jurors, brave witnesses.  It's an American story, not an individual's story, he says.

Lately, the world has come to see lawyers as down there with car salesmen and TV evangelists. And that's a terrible injustice, Nader feels.  Tort law, he insists, is democracy on the ground level, where the little guy gets somebody to listen to an injustice that has befallen him. A "tort" is a wrongful injury. It is deserving of a remedy. "Tort reform" is in the zeitgeist.  Big government is trying to persuade us that the cost of medicine, health care, and ultimately higher taxes, are all due to "frivolous law suits" and the American self-centered focus on rights instead of responsibilities. There's no doubt Americans are a litigious lot. But Nader is convinced if we're not careful, the pendulum will swing too far in the other direction and the little guy will lose out.  He has described the conservative agenda of tort reform, which seeks limits on lawsuits and financial awards, as “the cruelest movement I’ve ever encountered.” 

This museum is Nader, at age 81, still going strong.  Still looking out for the little guy.

To see photos of the exhibit, click here.  For Nader's website, click here.  For his blog, click here.

Cost of admission is $7.00.

photo credit: Winsted in 1950


If you type in “654 Main Street, Winsted, CT” on Google Maps, you’ll discover that the town has a number of eccentric features (besides Ralph Nader, I mean.)  One of them is that little pockets of the neighboring town of New Hartford, some six or seven miles down the road to Hartford, has Winsted's zip code 06098 mixed in among its own New Hartford 06057 zip code, and if you are not in possession of the right four-number code that follows the main zip code, you’ll go astray.  The Museum is at 654 Main Street in Winsted, 06098-1552, and not 654 Main Street in New Hartford 06098-1507.  Got that?

06098 zip code, Winsted
and New Hartford
06057 zip code, New Hartford
showing spots of 06098
That’s actually a minor eccentricity of the place.  A bigger one is the fact that Winsted is actually a city within a town.  The City of Winsted is contained entirely within the Town of Winchester, and in fact, on some maps you won’t see Winsted at all.  (See below.)  Just Winchester.  Somewhere in Winchester's history somebody decided to call this settlement between Winchester and Barkhamsted by the head of one and the ass-end of the other.  Winsted not only isn’t a real name (there’s no General Winsted who fought in the Revolutionary War, for example), it doesn’t even have exclusive rights to its own zip
See?  No Winsted!
code.  That means if you travel down Route 44 you go from Winsted 06098 into Barkhamsted 06063 and then into New Hartford 06098.  Quiz on Monday.

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