If you have ever been involved in a lawsuit, are thinking about filing a civil complaint, or are a fan of television programs such as Damages or Boston Legal, as well as legal thrillers by authors like John Grisham and Mike Papantonio, and want to learn more about the reality behind these stories, this unique museum is for you.
Located in Winstead, Connecticut, the American Museum of Tort Law first opened its doors in September of 2015. The mission of this young institution is to “educate, inform and inspire Americans about...trial by jury, and the benefits of tort law” and raise awareness about the legal process as it pertains to civil law and their constitutional rights under those statutes.
As Americans’ right to equal justice under the law and access to the courts are increasingly under attack, the American Museum of Tort Law and the knowledge it makes accessible to the general public has never been more important.
To the uninitiated, the word “torts” refers to the area of the law dealing with personal injuries caused by defective products, accidents, or the actions or carelessness of others. It can also involve material losses, such as property or wealth, as well as intangible assets (i.e., reputation and intellectual property). Although it is only one area of law, every law school student is required to study torts during their first year, regardless of the area of law in which they choose to specialize.
It is worth noting that the standard of liability in a civil lawsuit is lower than it is for a criminal case. Outcomes in criminal law are based on “reasonable doubt” and a jury verdict must be unanimous, whereas civil actions are decided on “a preponderance of evidence” and the verdict is often determined by less than all jurors.
Because of this, victims who fail to obtain justice in a criminal proceeding can often get redress in civil court. For example, a murderer who is found not guilty despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary or gets off on a technicality can still be held liable for wrongful death, as was the case for former pro football player O.J. Simpson in the mid 1990s. A number of different exhibits at the museum have been designed to help average laypeople better understand how the system of civil litigation operates and the importance of the right to trial by jury.
Tort law has been criticized by powerful interests (primarily those wishing to escape responsibility for their negligence or deliberate misconduct). These organizations push for what they call “tort reform,” citing an exaggerated number of “frivolous lawsuits” that have supposedly been filed by people allegedly abusing the system. At the American Museum of Tort Law, people can learn the truth behind “frivolous” lawsuits – as well as how immunity from lawsuits is frequently abused, how corporations weigh human life and the risk of being sued against potential profits, and much more.
The only shame here is that there are not more museums and publicly-accessible resources like this institution. Aside from voting and understanding how government is supposed to work, educating ourselves about the law and how it affects us, protects us, and can be misused by special interests is among the most important things we can do as citizens in a democracy.
If you are in the New England area or plan to travel there at some point, a visit to the American Museum of Tort Law is well worth the time and effort.