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Ralph Nader is still punching companies where it hurts

In his American Museum of Tort Law, courtroom wins over big business are on display

Associated Press

Consumer advocate and former Green party presidential candidate Ralph Nader will forever be linked to the legacy of the ill-fated early 1960s Chevrolet Corvair, a quirky rear-engine compact car that handled like a wily runaway skateboard.

The car and its potential liabilities — such as a steering column that could drive a stake through a driver’s torso in a collision and its propensity for its wheels to lock and spin on corners — were focal points in Nader’s 1965 book Unsafe at Any Speed. The book made Nader famous as a staunch advocate for corporate responsibility when it was exposed that GM hired private detectives to trail him, forcing the president of GM to publicly apologize. The car’s suspension setup was fairly common at the time, and the Corvair served as a broader symbol for lack of safety oversight in the car industry. GM redesigned the Corvair in 1965 with a new independent suspension that mitigated criticism of its rear suspension woes. Nader’s assertions led to the 1966 National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act and the eventual regulation of safety devices like seat belts.

A cherry red 1963 Corvair is a main attraction at the American Museum of Tort Law that Nader opened in his hometown of Winsted, Connecticut this fall, devoted to the legal battles waged on the behalf of victims of wrongful acts. "The more people know about the law of wrongful injury, the more they’ll use their rights if they are wronged and generate accountability to the perpetrators, compensation for their own losses work losses and pain and suffering and generate deterrents," Nader says in a phone interview. "It’s a very powerful contribution by an individual in the court of law. There’s nothing like it in the world."

There is no exploding Ford Pinto

The museum is heavy on information about historic cases of personal injury that set precedents in tort law, but skims on illustrative special effects. There is no exploding Ford Pinto. Instead, visitors can read about the 1981 case Grimshaw v. Ford Motor Company. Ford secretly performed crash tests on the Pinto — a compact car whose development was spearheaded by famed auto executive Lee Iacocca — but when engineers couldn’t find a quick fix to the gas tank’s propensity to explode, they let the defect slide. There are also exhibits about dangerous toys, toxic tobacco, and McDonald’s scalding coffee cups on view.

So far, Nader says the Corvair is a standout artifact for museum visitors, particularly among those who weren’t alive in 1965. "They’re used to air bags, seat belts. They are used to padded dash panels, roll over protection, head restraints. They begin by saying how did all these safety features come about and that becomes a lesson in consumer advocacy and safety regulation and the importance of being able to sue the manufacturers and get incriminating information out to the press and the legislators. It’s that cycle that’s very important." (It helps that time has boosted the profile of the distinctive Corvair; its values have risen in collector car auctions in recent years.)

"In those days you could split your skull in a 10 mile per hour collision on a sharp dashboard."

Nader’s vocal battles against the automotive industry are among his most enduring — and he remains passionate about safety. "The motor vehicle was around for 70 years before Unsafe at Any Speed came out, " he says. "And there were really no standards for brakes, quality, crash protection, environmental efficiency, or pollution control. That’s a huge part of this century that a few people at the head of these automotive companies could decide what quality air we’re going to have, who is going to live and who’s going to die, and what the severity of the accident would be. In those days you could split your skull in a 10 mile per hour collision on a sharp dashboard."

Nader’s ode to tort law seems timely as US legislators grapple with the legalization of driverless cars, deceptive software, and car company recall overload. "Looking back, Unsafe at Any Speed was an understatement," he says. Even at age 81, Nader hasn’t lost his zeal for speaking out against corporations that have intentionally deceived customers. He tweets, blogs, and has published several articles about the GM ignition recall and the lack of criminal punishment of executives. He closely follows how regulation applies to current challenges of the auto industry, and he’s been tracking Volkswagen’s wide-scale cheating on diesel emissions tests.

museum of tort law
(Associated Press)

"I think it’s a pattern. Remember VW got in trouble in the 1970s, General Motors 20 years ago had to pay a $40 million fine for manipulating software affecting their Cadillac model, and Ford has gotten in trouble as well. We’re seeing here an emerging universe of software penetration and manipulation, not to mention possible hacking, taking control of the vehicle away from the driver, without the driver’s knowledge. That includes being able to turn off engines and make brakes inoperable." He thinks that the impact on Volkswagen’s business could be more damaging than the $900 million penalty GM had to pay for knowingly selling vehicles with faulty ignition switches. "If the maximum fine was imposed on VW on all 11 million vehicles and then the recall costs and then the criminal fines and the civil fines, it would be tens of billions of dollars. Even a company the size of VW has to take notice of that."

Nader says he favors technology that advances safety, but he is wary of development that increases risk for deceptive software and hacking. "The lesson today is that democracy has to control technology, because technology is out of control. It doesn’t have an ethical or legal framework or standards by which it can be curtailed when it goes off the deep end and endangers people and the environment."

"I think eventually the internal combustion gasoline engine is on the way out."

An environmental advocate who doesn’t own a car, Nader thinks gasoline will fall by the wayside as a fuel source. "I think eventually the internal combustion gasoline engine is on the way out. Whether hydrogen will replace it or some combination of hybrid and electric car, or whatever. I think that’s the future. It’s quite clear it’s an irreversible trend. It may take longer than some people want."

But other advances, such as autonomous driving, cause Nader to be skeptical. "First, is it being ballyhooed just for public relations purposes by Google and others as a dimension of their innovation and modernity? Or is it a real an alternative?" he says. "I don’t think we’re going to see a driverless car for a long time to come. There are far too many imponderable variables on the highway, unanticipated intrusion, and not to mention insurance and regulation and the feeling that you’re not in control of the cars."

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Nader sees the museum as a bridge between the past and the new challenges facing corporations. He is interested in the new guard of the auto industry — particularly companies in Silicon Valley. "I don’t think it’s going to be up to the auto companies anymore because there’s too many other competitors coming in from sources you’d never dream of. You’d never think that a software company like Google was interested in getting into the car business, but that’s what’s going to happen."