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Vol. 2, Iss. 20
October 30, 2013

Declarations: The Coverage Opinions Interview
With Ralph Nader

His New Tort Museum, Views On Insurance And Telling Ralph Nader My Global Warming Joke

Should I or shouldn’t I? Should I or shouldn’t I? Should I or shouldn’t I? This is the question racing through my head about 20 minutes into my call with Ralph Nader. He’s been very affable and forthcoming and humorous and he wasn’t rushing me off the phone. So I’m feeling good that it won’t end in a disaster if I decide to do it.

But then again, it’s still Ralph Nader. He’s been named by The Atlantic as one of the 100 most influential figures in American history and by Time and Life Magazines as one of the hundred most influential Americans of the twentieth century. He’s run for President and, of course, is the most recognized face of all time when it comes to consumer advocacy and activism. His book, Unsafe at Any Speed, has been ranked as one of the most important pieces of journalism of the twentieth century. His automobile safety activism contributed to passage of the 1966 National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act, which established the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

So for lots of reasons maybe it’s a bad idea to tell a global warming joke to a man of Ralph Nader’s stature and one who has spent a lifetime taking on government and the biggest of big business, including environmental causes. So I’m teetering. The call is coming to an end. How can I possibly call myself a stand-up comic if I don’t take this opportunity? I’m facing a lifetime of regret if I don’t. So I do it. And he didn’t hang up the phone. Hardly. He responded that he recently did a stand-up set himself at a D.C. comedy club as part of a charity event. Go figure. More about the joke below.

The reason I’m on the phone with Ralph Nader is not to tell him jokes. It is to ask him about his planned American Museum of Tort Law, to be built in a former bank building in the 79 year old’s hometown of Winsted, Connecticut.

Personally I think the idea for a tort museum is an excellent one and it makes sense. After all, the law is a huge part of our society. Look at all of the television shows where judges decide real disputes (Judge Wapner was so far ahead of his time with a reality show). Lawyers and law firms and legal cases have been the subject of countless television dramas and movies. Half the commercials on television are for lawyers pitching for clients. John Grisham, and others in his genre, have sold a bazillion books. Americans have been fixated on many legal cases over the years and cable news wouldn’t devote so much of its time to discussing the law if people weren’t watching.

But this raises an interesting question. If the law is such a huge part of our society – and that’s not debatable – and if having a law museum is a good idea, then why isn’t there one currently in existence in the United States? Nader wonders the same thing. We are a country that exists under the rule of law, he tells me, but there is no law museum. Yet, he continues, there are 32 timber and lumber museums. Not to mention a museum for almost every vegetable and fruit. Nader is right about the existence of a lot of odd museums. There is a National Mustard Museum.

We are all inundated by the legal system and many are directly impacted by it in some way, shape or form every day. But despite all this, will people want to visit the American Museum of Tort Law? Might people think that it is a museum for lawyers and not for them? That’s the first question on my mind.

Mr. Nader explained that the attraction of the museum is that its visitors will have a daily frame of reference. Its exhibits will reflect products and services that are part of their daily lives, such as automobiles (the Pinto and Corvair will be chronicled) and a host of others where negligence or worse, Nader adds, caused injury or fatality. There will be exhibits addressing occupational health and safety and ones devoted to significant tort cases.

It is anticipated that a section of the museum will display defective toys, such as those that were flammable, toxic or contained sharp edges. These toys had to be made safer because of the adoption of safety standards and recalls. This, Nader explained, demonstrates that tort law deters unsafe products by accountability and bringing them to people’s attention.

The overarching theme of the American Museum of Tort Law is to demonstrate to ordinary citizens – many who feel excluded from the democratic process – how awesome the jury system is.

Naturally I had to ask Mr. Nader if insurance will have a place in the tort museum. After all, what would tort law be without insurance dollars to fund the settlements and verdicts? Certainly nowhere near what it is. On one hand, Nader explains, as insurance is hard to exhibit it may not be a huge part of the museum (perhaps a video). On the other hand, it may be displayed very prominently. Nader told me that he is thinking of placing, right above the front door of the museum, the best description he has ever heard of torts and insurance, told to him by the Chairman of one of the country’s largest insurance companies: “For the insurance industry tort law is quality control.”

This provided a segue for Mr. Nader to discuss one of his paramount causes – loss prevention. He explained that loss prevention should be the highest aspiration of the insurance industry. After all, safer products or workplace conditions will lead to lower losses. To put it another way, by holding individuals and corporations accountable, tort law induces deterrence, which leads to fewer claims. Mr. Nader’s simple example: “Because there are seatbelts and airbags in cars there are fewer claims.”

The American Museum of Tort Law is expected to be established in the next two years. Nader has raised about $2 million and is still looking to raise another $200,000 to $300,000 to get the museum open. His longer term goal is to raise $1.5 million to enable the museum to offer educational programs, for the construction of a courtroom to be used for mock trials, as well as to have a strong internet capability. Nader anticipates that the museum will make heavy use of the internet to display its offerings. His donors include Phil Donahue and a long list of prominent trial lawyers.

Of course, Ralph Nader is no friend to the tort reform lobby. And even when it comes to the museum he received a chilly reception. An AP story about the museum quoted a spokesman for the American Tort Reform Association as saying: “If Ralph thinks it’s needed, God bless him. This is America. I’ll personally find it amusing the first time his museum suffers a slip and fall lawsuit. Now that he’s responsible for operating a facility, let’s see how his opinion changes on tort law.” Whatever happened to If you can’t say something nice… I’d be surprised if Ralph Nader’s opinion on tort law will change if someone slips on a banana peel and sues the museum. It would probably take more than that to get him to join ATRA. Besides, I suspect that the museum will buy a commercial general liability policy to protect against such mishaps. And selling another insurance policy is a good thing for the insurance industry.

Now back to that global warming joke. I don’t know why all these environmentalists are so upset about global warming. You’d think they’d welcome a few extra degrees in the winter. This way it’s more comfortable for them when they’re outside protesting. Nader laughed – not burst out laughing and it may have just been polite laughter. But he took no offense. Frankly, nobody has burst out laughing the last two times I’ve told that joke from the stage (and in those situations plenty in the audience were drinking).

I appreciate Mr. Nader taking the time to speak with me. It was exciting. He is certainly the most famous person I’ve ever spoken to on the phone. I wish Mr. Nader all of the success in the world with the American Museum of Tort Law and look forward to visiting. For more information about the museum or to make a donation, give a call to Mr. Nader’s office – 202-387-8030.

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