Lawyers advanced competing conspiracy theories Wednesday as they squared off in Isuzu Motors Ltd.'s product-disparagement and defamation lawsuit against the publisher of Consumer Reports.
Isuzu's attorney told jurors that the magazine branded the 1995-96 Trooper sport-utility vehicle as rollover-prone as part of a self-serving publicity stunt.
In opening remarks to the jury, Isuzu counsel Andrew M. White charged that top executives at Consumers Union, which publishes the magazine, concocted the expose to boost sagging circulation and to pressure the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to adopt rollover safety standards for SUVs.
While dismissing Isuzu's theory as bogus, Consumers Union's lawyer, Joseph Cotchett, offered his own conspiracy theory, accusing the auto maker of filing the suit because it needed a scapegoat for its flagging SUV sales.
"The fact of the matter is that Isuzu had competition. They were losing money, and they were looking for somebody to blame," Cotchett said in his opening comments.
A jury of eight women and two men in Los Angeles began hearing the federal court case, expected to last seven weeks. Isuzu claims sales plunged 54% after Consumer Reports gave the Trooper a "not acceptable" rating in 1996.
Most of the dispute revolves around tests conducted on the Trooper in the spring of 1996 at Consumers Union's track in East Haddam, Conn.
Despite having recommended the Trooper in its annual automotive issue earlier that year, Consumer Reports did an about-face in August 1996 when it called a news conference to announce that its tests showed the vehicle displayed a "unique propensity" to roll over during sudden turns.
Consumers Union's technical director, R. David Pittle, told reporters at the time that the Trooper's two right wheels tipped up 75 out of 192 times when put through a zigzag maneuver designed to simulate what might happen if a driver had to swerve to avoid a child who darted into the vehicle's path.
An article detailing Trooper results and demanding action by the NHTSA appeared in Consumer Reports' October 1996 issue.
White said in his opening remarks that Consumers Union's rollover test had been dismissed as unreliable by the NHTSA as far back as 1988 because results could be skewed by how fast and how far a driver turned the steering wheel.