A Carmaker Makes the Most of a Hollow Victory

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As scores of celebrities will tell you, it is much easier to tarnish a reputation than to rehabilitate one. That's why automaker Isuzu was so quick to claim victory when the verdict was announced Thursday in its libel case against Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports magazine. In October 1996 Consumer Reports ran a cover story, featuring a photo of a precariously tipping Isuzu Trooper, which claimed that the SUV had a design flaw and was dangerously unsafe. The federal jury in L.A. that heard the case accepted Isuzu's argument that the test was unfair and that the magazine had made eight false statements about the Trooper in its review of the vehicle — out of a total of 17 claimed by Isuzu — but that only one of those was made with "reckless disregard" for the truth. It found that none of the statements were made with malice, which is the usual test as to whether damages are awarded, and thus no money will be paid out.

The verdict led Consumers Union, the not-for-profit organization behind Consumer Reports, to also claim victory. But considering the disproportionate amount of attention the original article was able to garner, it's hard to see this as a true double victory. Isuzu, which became the butt of talk-show jokes following the report, still has a tarnished image, though sales of the Trooper have recovered somewhat in the general enthusiasm for SUVs. "What the jury said here was that it wasn't going to give a multibillion-dollar corporation a settlement that could ruin a nonprofit group that basically does good work," says TIME legal analyst Alain Sanders. Cold comfort for Isuzu, which sank millions of dollars into pursuing the case and claimed a quarter billion dollars in damages from the article.