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Consumers Union asks Supreme Court to undo Suzuki case ruling

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Consumers Union asks Supreme Court to undo Suzuki case ruling

  • The consumer advocacy publisher asked the high court to reverse a decision that could put many consumer reviewers at risk.

Aug. 20, 2003 — Consumers Union, the nonprofit safety advocate and publisher of Consumer Reports, filed a legal petition Monday asking the U.S. Supreme Court to reject a product disparagement lawsuit brought against the organization by Suzuki Motor Corp.

The petition asks the Court to hear an appeal of a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco (9th Cir.) allowing the suit, based on negative reviews of the car manufacturer’s Samurai model, to proceed to trial.

“This is not just a lawsuit against Consumers Union,” said Consumers Union president and CEO Jim Guest in a statement. “At risk is our right as consumers to read independent reviews in any publication — not just of cars, but of movies or software or any other product or service. . . . If the Supreme Court allows the Ninth Circuit ruling to stand, it sets a dangerous precedent by allowing disgruntled companies to misuse the judicial system to intimidate and punish their reviewers and critics.”

The petition asks the Court to settle two issues addressed by the lower court: whether a court considering a publisher’s motion to summarily dismiss a lawsuit must independently examine the evidence in an effort to dismiss frivolous suits, and whether Suzuki had sufficient evidence of “actual malice” to go to trial.

“Actual malice” is a legal term meaning knowledge of or reckless disregard for the truth. The Supreme Court has said that any public figure or corporation that brings a lawsuit based on speech must prove that the speaker acted with “actual malice.”

Consumer Reports rated the Suzuki Samurai “not acceptable” in 1988 tests in which the vehicle tipped over. After the magazine referred to the negative rating in the 60th anniversary issue in 1996, Suzuki sued, claiming that the Consumer Reports tests were rigged.

A trial court initially dismissed the suit, saying Suzuki had insufficient evidence to go forward. But a majority of the full Ninth Circuit court revived the suit in May, over strong dissent by several appellate judges.

Several media organizations, including The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, intend to file a friend-of-the-court brief encouraging the Supreme Court to take the case and to decide it in favor of the publisher.

(Consumers Union v. Suzuki Motor Corp.; Media Counsel: Michael N. Pollet, Yonkers, N.Y.) WT

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