Did you know the American Museum of Tort Law is in Winsted, Connecticut? It’s true! And not only is it a real museum—it has a gift shop. But how much do you really know about Tort law?
I bet you could recall more than one example without realizing it. Because, after browsing through the museum's online database and even experiencing a virtual tour, one thing is evident: Tort cases have changed the course of American history.
Tort law is commonly referred to as the law of wrongful injuries. This includes motor vehicle crashes and car wrecks, defective products, medical malpractice, and environmental disasters, among many others. A tort, in common law jurisdiction, is a civil wrong that causes a claimant to suffer loss or harm, resulting in legal liability for the person who committed that “tortious” act. It can include intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligence, financial loss, injury, invasion of privacy, and numerous other examples.
It is the law that protects and compensates people who are injured by wrongdoings; whether it be the negligence, recklessness, or intentional acts of others, or the unsafe or defective products made by a company. The justice for victims is decided by a trial by jury; a bedrock American right, guaranteed in our Bill of Rights.
When tort law was widely adopted it had a powerful impact on legal scholarship. It set a standard for consumer protection and clarified a new area of law that swept the country with a multitude of impacts. Tort litigation can’t be overstated. It can cause a sea change. And it shows how effective our tort system can be. Here are two prominent cases that changed American culture for the better:
The Tobacco Cases
Tort litigation against the tobacco companies for injuries caused by smoking cigarettes started in the 50s and 60s but the first large class-action suit was filed in 1991. Brought by a group of nonsmoking flight attendants suffering from illnesses caused by secondhand smoke exposure at work.
As a result of this and multiple cases against big tobacco, jurors found that, before 1966, the company had failed to warn consumers of the health risks in smoking their products. The jury also found that the company’s cigarette advertisements constituted an express warranty that its cigarettes were safe, and the company had breached that warranty.
These cases held tobacco companies liable for smoking-related injuries and exposed internal tobacco company documents that showed they knew of the dangers of cigarettes. Not only had they failed to warn the public, but tobacco companies had also conspired to conceal these documents in effort to hide the health hazards of smoking. These tort cases would change the tobacco industry forever.
In 1962, President John F. Kennedy responded to public concern with a review on the scientific evidence regarding the health effects of smoking. This would uncover the first concluding evidence that smoking caused lung cancer and attributed significantly to excess deaths annually.
Nearly 25 years later Congress passed laws prohibiting the sale or distribution of tobacco products to minors. In 1992, The Environmental Protection Agency released a 525-page report declaring cigarette smoke to be a “proven human carcinogen.” In 1993, Bill Clinton declared the White House smoke-free. In 1994, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”) proposed a rule prohibiting smoking in the workplace.
These cases have reduced cigarette consumption, shed light on the dangers of smoking and on the tobacco manufacturers’ conspiracy to deceive the public. They have reimbursed states for the cost of treating injured and dying smokers, and funded anti-smoking programs, among other accomplishments.
But the most important ripple effect in the tobacco tort cases will always remain; these litigation efforts have saved (and will continue to save) hundreds of thousands of lives.
Grimshaw v. Ford Motor Company, 1981
In 1972, a Ford Pinto driven by Lilly Gray stalled as she entered a merge lane on a California freeway. Her Pinto was rear-ended by another car and the gas tank ruptured, releasing gasoline vapors that quickly spread. A spark ignited the mixture, and the Pinto exploded.
Gray did not survive, but her 13-year-old son, Richard Grimshaw, did, despite suffering disfiguring burns and ongoing surgical procedures. Between the 11 years of the start of the trial and the final verdict, nearly 900 people suffered the same fate as Lily Gray in Ford Pinto, in the United States alone. Grimshaw and Gray’s family filed a tort action against Ford Motor Company.
The lawsuits brought by injured people and their survivors uncovered how the company rushed the Pinto through production and onto the market. Public fury was truly ignited when the tort case brought to light Ford’s knowledge of the defect before the Pinto even went into production. It also revealed that Ford could have prohibited the known dangers by paying $8 more per car. Ford knowingly denied the implementation of a preventative safety design due to cost-saving tactics.
The jury awarded $2.5 million to the Grimshaws and $559,680 to the Gray’s family for damages and injuries. But Ford was also set to pay $125 million as a punishment for their conduct. In the end, a major money-making car company was forced to take responsibility for their lack of care in protecting drivers (and possibly poor judgment in priorities). It shed light on “cost-effective” methods in business and how they cannot and should not be at the expense of the consumer.
The new safety standards and expectations on responsible parties would change the way a motor vehicle was built and valued, and how a company played a role in that. Factory processes, materials, jobs, and the level of motor vehicle science and research would all be altered because of this Tort case.
It revealed just how dangerous it is for large corporations to cut corners. It allowed the American public to demand trust in their manufacturers. It changed the way we bought things but gave the consumer the power.
It’s important to recognize the power of tort law because it often gives hope and empowerment to one party much smaller as in cases like these. The stories above should serve as an example that you are not alone. That you are deserving of compensation when you have been wrongfully treated.
Our professionals at Bart Durham Injury Law want to help. Here are a few prominent and ongoing Tort cases today that you may have questions about:
The 4 million CPAP, BiPAP and mechanical ventilators were recalled in June 2021 by Philips. Due to a disintegrating foam piece in the sleep apnea mask, users were put at risk for ingesting small particulates as well as inhaling toxic chemicals.
These recalled Philips devices can potentially lead to unusual or serious side effects like respiratory illnesses, organ damage, and possibly cancer.
Talcum Powder and Mesothelioma Cases:
Talcum powder lawsuits are claims that baby powder manufacturers knew their talc was contaminated by asbestos and could cause mesothelioma and ovarian cancer but did nothing to warn consumers about the risk. Most cases are individual lawsuits but at least four class action lawsuits have been filed. Recent jury verdicts have awarded billions of dollars to plaintiffs.
Litigation is ongoing in talcum powder lawsuits that claim industrial or cosmetic talc contaminated by asbestos led to mesothelioma. As of April 2018, juries had awarded more than $153 million in talcum powder mesothelioma claims.
People who filed these cases claim inhalation of talcum powder led them to develop mesothelioma and lung disease. Asbestos is the main cause of mesothelioma, but some lawsuits argue that with or without asbestos contamination, talc can also lead to the disease.
If you believe you have been affected by or involved in a class action claim or tort case, please contact our professionals at Bart Durham Injury Law. We have 75+ years of combined experience and extensive knowledge in these claims and personal injury law. Contact us today for a FREE consultation.