In a setback to the nation's most popular consumer magazine, a federal judge ruled Wednesday that Consumer Reports' publisher must stand trial over Isuzu Motors Ltd.'s claim that the magazine rigged its vaunted vehicle-handling test in a deliberate campaign to destroy the reputation of the Isuzu Trooper sport-utility vehicle.
The trial, set for Nov. 30 in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, will expose Consumers Union to a vigorous attack on its reputation for unbiased product reviews.
But in denying the nonprofit organization's request to dismiss the case involving a damning 1996 review of the Trooper, District Court Judge Richard A. Paez also dug a potential pothole for Isuzu. He ruled, over Isuzu's objections, that the auto maker is a public figure and must meet a tough standard to prove it was hurt by the review.
The "actual malice" standard requires Isuzu to show that Consumers Union knew or had strong suspicions that its information was false but published it anyway. "No jury in the land is going to find Consumers Union liable under actual malice," says product-defamation specialist David J. Bederman, a law professor at Emory University in Atlanta. But Bederman and other legal scholars say that even if Isuzu loses at trial, the testimony it will present is sure to blemish Consumer Reports' image.
New York-based Consumers Union, whose magazine is bought by more than 4.5 million people each month, faces a similar product-defamation suit by Suzuki Motor Corp. involving a 1996 review of the company's Samurai mini-SUV. A decision is pending in federal court in Santa Ana on Consumers Union's motion for dismissal of that suit.
Consumers Union President Rhoda H. Karpatkin said Wednesday that the publisher stands by its Trooper review and believes Isuzu has engaged in "an unfair attack" on Consumer Reports' right to publish its test results "without intimidation."
Isuzu, in a brief statement, said it was "extremely pleased" with the decision to send the case to trial.
Together, Isuzu and Suzuki are believed to have spent $35 million so far in pressing their cases against Consumers Union. The publisher has spent an estimated $10 million trying to avoid trial.
Bederman and other legal scholars worry that the high costs could have a chilling effect on the media's willingness to publish negative product reviews.
In the Isuzu and Suzuki reviews, Consumer Reports rated the vehicles "not acceptable," its worst rating.
The reviews said the two vehicles had a dangerous propensity to roll over in emergency-steering situations and urged consumers not to buy them.
Isuzu and Suzuki have argued that Consumer Reports lied when it represented its emergency-handling test as a scientifically accurate gauge of a vehicle's stability.
Consumer Reports officials knew, or should have known by the time of the Trooper review, Isuzu argues in its court filings, that other entities including the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration had publicly criticized the magazine's handling test for SUVs.
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