SAN FRANCISCO — A federal appeals court recently reinstated a defamation suit by Suzuki Motor Corp. against the publisher of Consumer Reports.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, ruling 2-1, said a jury should determine whether New York-based publisher Consumers Union of United States Inc. rigged its testing for a published report labeling the Suzuki Samurai “not acceptable.” The magazine first reported in 1988 that the Suzuki “rolls over too easily.”
Two years ago, a Santa Ana federal judge dismissed the case, ruling that Suzuki had not sufficiently supported its claim that the magazine acted maliciously to damage the reputation of the sport utility vehicle.
But the appeals court ruled that a jury should weigh for itself allegations the magazine rigged the driving test to reach a predetermined conclusion, and that it published its results with reckless disregard as to whether they were true, wrote Judge A. Wallace Tashima.
Tashima also said a federal jury should consider whether the magazine’s motives were profit driven, given that it reprinted its original 1988 story in fund-raising solicitations while it was in “substantial debt.”
The National Highway Traffic Safety Agency declined a petition to declare the vehicle defective and said the magazine’s test procedures for the Suzuki “do not have a scientific basis,” Tashima wrote.
In dissent, Judge Warren J. Ferguson said there was not sufficient evidence for the case to proceed. Blocking a trial, Ferguson wrote, was “necessary to both avoid the inhibition of free speech by the media and to protect public safety and health.”
The magazine is considering asking the court to reconsider, or may request the U.S. Supreme Court review the ruling.
“The First Amendment guarantees the right to report our independent findings, even when our judgment differs from that of the government or the company in question,” said Jim Guest, president of Consumers Union.
Suzuki attorney George Ball said the court’s decision means the magazine “will now have to answer in court for the false charges it has spread and continues to spread regarding the Suzuki Samurai sport utility vehicle.”
Suzuki’s United States headquarters is in Brea. It no longer markets the Samurai vehicles in the United States.
The case is Suzuki v. Consumers Union, 00-56043.