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Consumer Reports and Suzuki settle defamation suit

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Consumer Reports and Suzuki settle defamation suit

  • Consumer Reports magazine and the Suzuki Motor Corp. settled their product disparagement suit yesterday, with neither company admitting fault or receiving financial compensation.

July 9, 2004 — An eight-year-old product disparagement suit came to screeching halt yesterday, as the Suzuki Motor Corp. and Consumer Reports magazine settled their long-running legal battle. Neither company admitted fault or received monetary compensation from the other.

Suzuki filed suit in 1996 after Consumer Reports republished excerpts of an unfavorable review of the Suzuki Samurai. The original review first ran in the magazine in 1988. Titled “Warning: The Suzuki rolls over too easily,” Consumer Reports found that the sport utility vehicle was “so likely to roll over during a maneuver that could be demanded of any car at any time that it is unfit for its intended use.”

Suzuki sued for product disparagement, alleging that Consumer Reports rigged its in-house tests to make the vehicle fail. A product disparagement claim requires proving “actual malice,” a knowing or reckless disregard for the truth of a statement.

The suit was initially dismissed by a federal district court judge in Santa Ana, Calif., but a divided panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco (9th Cir.) reinstated it in June 2002. The U.S. Supreme Court declined review of the case in November 2003 — numerous media groups, including The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, filed friend-of-the-court briefs in support of Consumer Reports — sending the suit back to the district court to be resolved.

The companies filed a joint motion in Santa Ana yesterday to have the case dismissed.

According to statements released by both companies, the use of the word ‘easily’ in the review had been a major point of contention. “CU never intended to state or imply that the Samurai easily rolls over in routine driving conditions,” they said.

“The parties have acknowledged their mutual respect for each other in that Suzuki recognizes CU’s stated commitment for objective and unbiased testing and reporting, and CU recognizes Suzuki’s stated commitment for designing, manufacturing and marketing safe vehicles,” said statements from both companies.

Richard Samp, chief counsel for the Washington Legal Foundation, a D.C.-based public interest firm, said Suzuki likely chose to settle because it had already been redeemed by the courts.

“Very often plaintiffs in libel cases are more interested in getting a statement on the public record that redeems their name than they are in getting money,” said Samp, whose organization filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the Ninth Circuit advocating that the suit proceed to trial. For Consumer Reports, which did not have to admit fault or pay damages, settling made obvious sense, he said.

Consumer Reports , published by New York-based Consumers Union, and Suzuki each claimed a limited victory following the settlement.

(Suzuki Motor Corp. v. Consumers Union of United States, Inc.; Media counsel: Michael N. Pollet, Yonkers, N.Y.) JL

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