Judge: Museum standards mean Museum of Science & Industry owes Breedlove duty for historic car

By Jonathan Bilyk | Jan 6, 2017

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 attorney fees.

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.

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Organizations in this Story

Horwood Marcus & Berk, Chartered Museum of Science and Industry Schiff Hardin LLP

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