A legendary driver and former holder of world land speed
records has won the chance to hit the gas on his lawsuit against Chicago’s Museum
of Science and Industry over the museum’s alleged mistreatment of the Spirit of
America, a historic car in which he broke the land speed record, and which he
loaned to the museum five decades ago.
On Jan. 5, U.S. District Judge Ronald A. Guzman rejected a
bid from the museum to dismiss two of three counts brought by plaintiff Norman Craig
Breedlove, saying – while case law on the subject is scant - the museum’s
membership in the American Alliance of Museums and its acquiescence to the AAM’s
National Standards and Best Practices can serve to establish a guideline for
the museum’s obligations and fiduciary duties to those who loan items to be
displayed in the museum’s collection.
“These statements … are sufficient to allege that the Museum
owed a fiduciary duty to Plaintiff while it possessed and displayed his car,”
Judge Guzman wrote.
The judge also said he would allow Breedlove to proceed with
his claim of “gross negligence” against the museum for its alleged lack of care
for the car.
“Plaintiff alleges that the parties ‘entered into an oral
Loan Agreement in or about early 1965,’ pursuant to which the Museum ‘agreed to
take on the responsibility of maintaining and conserving the condition of the
Spirit of America while it remained on display at the Museum,’” Guzman wrote. “While
Plaintiff alleges the existence of a contract, the Court cannot discern its
terms (including whether it is the source of any duty to Plaintiff) because it
was, according to Plaintiff, oral. Moreover, the Court cannot state as a matter
of law at this stage of the litigation that the Museum did not owe an
extra-contractual duty to Plaintiff.”
The case landed in Chicago federal court in June 2016, when
Breedlove, a five-time holder of world land speed records and the first man to
drive a car 600 miles per hour, sued MSI, alleging the museum failed to
properly care for and protect the Spirit of America.
Breedlove, of California, had provided the car to MSI in
1965 for an exhibit. The car had crashed in 1964, but was repaired and cleaned,
though not restored to driving condition, for the exhibit.
According to Breedlove’s complaint, the oral agreement he
had reached with MSI included a promise that, if the car ever went off display
at the museum, it must be returned to Breedlove.
When the museum moved to retire the car from display in
October 2015, Breedlove requested its return, having noted during an earlier
visit to the museum that the car had suffered “a significant amount of damage,”
primarily from people climbing on it or carving their names or other graffiti
on it, the complaint alleged. He also alleged the museum had apparently
enlisted “incompetent and unqualified personnel” to repair and repaint it, and
had “unprofessionally cut and re-welded” the car’s frame.
Breedlove had asked the court to order the museum to pay at
least $395,000 for needed repairs, plus punitive and exemplary damages and
After the lodged the complaint, the museum moved to dismiss
the case, saying it had no written contract with Breedlove and the law does not
specify the duties of a museum to safeguard the materials loaned to it by
others for display. The court granted that request, but allowed Breedlove to
file an amended complaint.
In the new complaint, Breedlove noted the lack of law on the
subject, but said the museum’s obligations should be governed by the AAM’s
National Standards, which require, in part, museums to “steward” their
collections and which place upon museums “legal, social and ethical obligations
to provide proper physical storage, management and care for the collections and
associated documentation, as well as proper intellectual control” to ensure
loaned items “are available and accessible to present and future generations.”
The judge rejected the museum’s contention these standards
are “inadequate to support a claim for a breach of fiduciary duty,” saying such
a duty could exist in this case.
The decision did not address Breedlove’s claim against the
museum for breach of contract.
Breedlove is represented in the action by attorneys with the
firms of Freeman Freeman & Smiley, of Los Angeles, and Horwood Marcus &
Berk, of Chicago.
The Museum of Science and Industry is defended by attorneys
with the firm of Schiff Hardin LLP, of Chicago.