Consumer Reports under fire

Auto makers seek millions after magazine criticizes their sport utility vehicles

September 20, 1999|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

Consumer Reports, the magazine millions turn to before shopping for everything from cosmetics to cars, is under fire from two auto makers in lawsuits that constitute the most serious attack ever on the 63-year-old publication.

Judges in Southern California could decide as early as this week to send the federal cases to trial. Some legal experts say the lawsuits could have a dangerously chilling effect on the media's willingness to publish negative product reviews.

The product-disparagement suits, by Japanese auto makers Suzuki Motors Corp. and Isuzu Motors Ltd., allege that the magazine rigged driving tests for its 1988 review of Suzuki's Samurai and its 1996 review of the Isuzu Trooper and its twin, the Isuzu-built Acura SLX.

Consumer Reports called the sport-utility vehicles "not acceptable" -- its worst rating -- and urged consumers not to buy them because they exhibited a dangerous propensity to roll over under emergency steering conditions.

The magazine's publisher, Consumers Union, stands by its reviews and contends that its right to criticize is protected by law.

But the auto makers' suits raise substantial questions about the magazine's methods -- questions that legal specialists say should be compelling enough to send the cases to trial despite Consumers Union's pending bids in U.S. District Court to have them dismissed.

Two key questions:

Why did Consumer Reports devise a tough new accident-avoidance handling course for SUVs and other light trucks as part of its Samurai test only after failing in 46 tries -- on the course it had used since 1972 -- to get the vehicle to tip during a highway-speed directional change?

Is the avoidance test objective and scientific, as the magazine maintains, or is it a subjective test heavily influenced by the driving style of the testers, as claimed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the agency's counterparts in Britain and Switzerland.

The two auto companies are seeking more than $50 million in combined damages and say the negative reviews have cost them more than $500 million in sales.

The consumers group could be fighting for its life. Some observers believe that the huge legal bills being run up in the case could affect Consumers Union's ability to keep the estimated $30 million in liability coverage it needs to conduct its work.

According to insiders in the complex case, Suzuki and Isuzu together have spent more than $25 million on legal fees, expert witnesses, private investigators and technical studies.

These insiders say Consumers Union has spent $10 million or more trying to stop the lawsuits without a trial. The consumers group argues that Suzuki and Isuzu are attacking a fundamental right of the media in this country: the right to criticize.

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