Politics Ralph Nader

Ralph Nader: What Are Torts? They’re Everywhere!

Many abuses--from the Tobacco industry’s carcinogenic cover-up to the Catholic Church’s pedophile scandal--were exposed by lawsuits using the venerable American law of torts. So what exactly is it?
[Charlie / CC BY-SA 2.0]

By Ralph Nader

Editor’s note: This article first appeared February 20, 2019.

What exposed the Tobacco industry’s carcinogenic cover-up? The lethal asbestos industry cover-up? The General Motors’ deadly ignition switch defect cover-up? The Catholic Church’s pedophile scandal? All kinds of toxic waste poisonings?

Not the state legislatures of our country. Not Congress. Not the regulatory agencies of our federal or state governments. These abuses and other wrongs were exposed by lawsuits brought by individuals or groups of afflicted plaintiffs using the venerable American law of torts.

Almost every day, the media reports on stories of injured parties using our legal system to seek justice for wrongful injuries. Unfortunately, the media almost never mentions that the lawsuits were filed under the law of torts.

Regularly, the media reports someone filing a civil rights lawsuit or a civil liberties lawsuit. When was the last time you read, heard, or saw a journalist start their report by saying…“so and so today filed a tort lawsuit against a reckless manufacturer or a sexual predator, or against the wrongdoers who exposed the people of a town like Flint, Michigan to harmful levels of lead in drinking water? Or lawsuits against Donald Trump for ugly defamations or sexual assaults”?

I was recently discussing this strange omission with Richard Newman, former executive director of the American Museum of Tort Law and a former leading trial attorney in Connecticut. He too was intrigued. He told me that when high school students tour the Museum, their accompanying teachers often admit that they themselves never heard of tort law!

Last fall, a progressive talk show host, who has had many victims of wrongful injuries on her show, visited the museum. While walking through the door, she too declared that she didn’t know what tort law was. She certainly did after spending an hour touring the museum. (See tortmuseum.org).

Public ignorance about tort law should have been taken care of in our high schools. Sadly even some lawyers advised us not to use the word “tort” in the Museum’s name because nobody would know what it meant.

“Tort” comes from the French word for “a wrongful injury.” Millions of torts involving people and property occur every year. Bullies in schools, assaults, negligent drivers, hazardous medicines, defective motor vehicles, toxic chemicals, hospital and medical malpractices, and occupational diseases, and more can all be the sources of a tort claim.

Yes, crimes are almost always torts as well. When police officers use wildly excessive force and innocent people die, families can sue the police department under tort law and have recovered compensation for “wrongful deaths.”

American law runs on the notion that “for every wrong, there should be a remedy.” When Americans get into trouble with the law, they are told by judges that “ignorance of the law is no excuse” and that “you are presumed to know the law.” In that case, why then don’t we teach the rudiments of tort law (or fine print contract law for that matter) in high schools?

After all, youngsters are not exempt from wrongful injuries in their daily street and school lives. Just recently, scores of schools’ drinking water fountains were found to contain dangerous levels of lead. That is a detectable, preventable condition and would be deemed gross negligence invoking tort law.

Most remarkably, the insurance industry has spent billions of dollars over the past fifty years on advertising and demanding “tort reform”, meaning restricting the rights of claimants who go to court and capping the compensation available to injured patients no matter how serious their disability. Still the public’s curiosity was never quickened to learn more about tort law and trial by jury. The right to trial by jury is older than the American Revolution, is protected by the seventh amendment to our Constitution and is available to be used by injured parties to help defend against or deter those who would expose people and their property to wrongful harm or damage.

One way to educate people is to do what a physician friend of mine did at a conference of Ear, Nose, and Throat (ENT) specialists. He walked in wearing a Tort Museum T-Shirt, raising eyebrows and provoking discussion.

There are, of course, more systematic ways to inform Americans about tort law. Bring the high school curriculums down to earth and educate students about this great pillar of American freedom. Devote one of the 600 cable channels in America to teaching citizens about the law, and how to use it to improve levels of justice in our country.

From social media to traditional media, the law of torts needs to be illustrated with actual case studies showing its great contribution and even greater potential to provide compensation for or deterrence to all kinds of preventable violence.

Artists and musicians should use their talents to convey many of these David vs. Goliath battles in our courts of law. Oh, for a great song on the delights of having a jury bring a wrongdoer to justice.

The powerless can hold the powerful accountable, with a contingent fee attorney. Tort law remains vastly underutilized—though it is before us in plain sight. The plutocrats must be happy that so few people know about or use the remedies available through tort law.

Hear this practicing plaintiff lawyers—wherever you are: You number 60,000 strong in the U.S. If you each speak to small groups—classes, clubs, reunions, etc.—totaling some 1,000 people a year, that is 60 million people receiving knowledge central to their quality of life and security. Every year! Fascinating human interest stories full of courage, persistence, and vindication of critical rights will captivate and inspire your audiences. What say you, “officers of the court”?

Watch “Litigation and Advocacy to Confront and Survive the Climate Crisis“, a panel discussion presented by the American Museum of Tort Law.

9 comments

  1. Let me get this straight. Tort law is there to bring wrongdoers to justice. Hmmm. Then why aren’t all our presidents and secretaries of state in jail for war crimes. Why is Julian Assange being tortured to death for exposing war crimes. Why didn’t Chevron have to pay the billions in fines and instead have a judge in their pocket and Steve Donzerger go to jail? Tort law may be all over the place but darned if whistleblowers don’t wind up losing that so called available justice. Honestly, I could list rotten outcomes for literally days on end, but what’s the point point.

    1. Tort law is civil, not criminal. You sue people for money damages or for a court ordering certain behavior or cessation of behavior. No one goes to jail or prison due to being sued.

  2. Actually, Ralph Nader is great …I voted for him…and perhaps is thinking in terms of consumer safety (seat belts) where tort law is the thing. I’m thinking of laws in global terms. The ICC and UN don’t stop Israel from its apartheid cruelty, nor the US coups and hegemonic mania.

  3. Thanks for explaining or rather telling us there’s such a thing as ‘tort’ law. Would have liked to see a further explanation but in googling it I see why you didn’t go there. The Law is an excruciatingly detailed look at any subject. N that needs a Lot more.
    But I see laws created by the electorate – that make zero sense – then that’s the law. Gotta be a better way.

  4. Weird article not to mention that tort in the US was – and is – a direct continuity from English tort law. The principles we use come from codes enshrined in English law mostly between 1066 and 1707.

    I don’t like the almost propagandist artificial separation of “American tort” as if it appeared from nowhere. It’s always tempting to mythologize the nationalist instinct but we lose too much when we cut ourselves off from the real continuum of past causes and effects.

    1. So what is your point? Can’t you distinguish between major and very minor issues?

  5. Being able to sue large corporations in order to change their behavior is a good thing. But much better would be a society that places life (all life, not just human life) above money and business, or at least laws that put the major shareholders, CEO, and board of directors of corporations in prison for substantial amounts of time when a corporation is convicted of a crime or crimes (as it stands now, corporate crimes are only punished with money), and to have a government that aggressively prosecutes corporate crimes.

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