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Supreme Court denies review of Suzuki v. Consumers Union

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Supreme Court denies review of Suzuki v. Consumers Union

  • The Supreme Court refused to hear arguments about dismissing a product disparagement case against Consumer Reports, a setback for all media groups that write about safety and health issues.

Nov. 3, 2003 — The U.S. Supreme Court today declined to review a federal appeals court decision that allows a product disparagement case to go to trial.

Twenty-four news organizations, including The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the Supreme Court arguing that the panel decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco (9th Cir.) threatens to deter speech about the potential dangers of products. The groups warned that if the decision stands, “virtually any product evaluation is at risk, and this valuable journalistic genre is seriously compromised.”

The case, Suzuki Motor Corp. v. Consumers Union, stems from a car safety review published by Consumer Reports magazine in 1988. The article gave the Suzuki Samurai a “not acceptable” rating, concluding the sport utility vehicle was unsafe because it “rolls over too easily.”

When the magazine mentioned the story in a later anniversary issue, Suzuki brought suit against Consumers Union, a nonprofit advocacy group that owns and operates Consumer Reports, in 1996 under California law for product disparagement. Suzuki alleges Consumers Union rigged the test.

In May 2000, Consumers Union won a motion in federal district court to have the case dismissed. However, a divided Ninth Circuit panel ruled in June 2002 that the case should proceed to trial because there was sufficient evidence for a jury to decide that Consumers Union had acted with actual malice and rigged the test.

Actual malice, the standard used in defamation cases where the plaintiff is a public figure, requires proof that the statements were made with knowledge of falsity or with reckless disregard for the truth.

Consumers Union sought a rehearing before the entire appellate court, but a sharply divided court voted 13-11 in May 2003 to not take up the case. On Aug. 18, Consumers Union petitioned the Supreme Court to review the decision. The Court declined today without comment.

“We believe it hurts consumers to let the Ninth Circuit ruling stand with its chilling effect on those who report about safety and health,” Jim Guest, president of Consumers Union, told The Associated Press.

At issue in the case is whether the appeals panel followed the “independent appellate review” rule, a procedural rule that protects the press from extended litigation. The rule requires appellate courts hearing First Amendment cases to independently assess all evidence, rather than relying on the trial court findings. The court must find the evidence establishes with “convincing clarity” that the case against the defendant should go to trial.

Consumers Union attorney Michael Pollet argued that the Ninth Circuit erred by applying the ordinary standard for reviewing a motion to dismiss a case. Pollet said the court examined whether Suzuki had shown with sufficient evidence that Consumers Union acted with actual malice, rather than following the independent review rule.

(Suzuki Motor Corp. v. Consumers Union; Media counsel: Michael Pollet, Pollet & Felleman, Yonkers, N.Y.) KM

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