In 1992, a 78-year-old woman spilled a piping hot cup of McDonald’s coffee in her lap while sitting in a parked car. After suffering serious third degree burns, she won a lawsuit against the fast-food chain for almost $3 million (the amount she actually received, however, might have been much less). Since then, the lawsuit has become something of a parable for the U.S.’s lawsuit-happy culture. Shouldn’t people know that coffee is going to be hot?
The American Museum of Tort Law, founded by five-time presidential candidate Ralph Nader, aims to show that lawsuits like Liebeck v. McDonald's Restaurants are far from frivolous. Rather, it’s an instrumental way to hold corporations accountable. Nader founded the museum in his hometown, Winsted, Conn., with a former personal injury lawyer. After 17 years of planning and fundraising, it opened on September 27.
The museum’s first exhibits focus on lawsuits like the McDonald’s coffee case, a 1981 lawsuit over the Ford Pinto’s tendency to explode in accidents, and a 1949 Supreme Court decision deemed “the flaming rat case.” It also includes an exhibit on Nader’s battle with Chevrolet, the company he took to task in Unsafe at Any Speed, his 1965 book about car manufacturers’ reluctance to implement safety design features.
The museum presents a different view of lawsuits than the one often held in the public imagination. It argues that personal injury lawsuits can be a tool for the public good. “You know, people don’t see the benefits of tort law. Their cars are safer. Their foods are safer. They just live in an improved world,” museum co-founder Richard Newman told the New Yorker.
[h/t: The New Yorker]