Consumer Reports makes big blunder
Published: Sunday, January 21, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 20, 2007 at 11:44 p.m.
WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. — Consumer Reports once mismeasured the ingredients in dog food. Just last year, it screwed up the depreciation rates of hybrid cars.
But it's rare for the trusted, independent magazine to go as wrong as it did in its report this month on infant car seats. Consumer Reports retracted the report Thursday when it turned out that side-impact crashes in tests of car seats were carried out at speeds near 70 mph, not the 38 mph the magazine claimed.
The magazine told its 6.3 million print and online readers — and the millions more who had heard about the widely publicized report — to disregard the startling findings earlier this month that only two of the 12 seats it tested were worth buying. Parents of babies may or may not have been comforted by the magazine's promise to retest the seats and issue a new report.
On Friday, spokesman Ken Weine defended the magazine's overall 70-year record.
"As an organization whose only mission is to serve consumers' interest, we test over 3,100 products a year with our teams of reporters, scientists, engineers and even mystery shoppers who apply the most rigorous standards," he said.
He also noted that Consumer Reports went public with the information as soon as it learned of the bad test at the Calspan lab in Buffalo.
Weine would not say whether Consumer Reports expects lawsuits over its faulty testing. And at least two of the car-seat makers whose products were rated poorly in the faulty test seemed conciliatory.
"The intent of Consumer Reports was probably in the best interests of families and child safety," said Lisa Nussa of Peg Perego. "There are no plans for a lawsuit or anything along those lines." Another car-seat maker, Chicco USA, said it "applauds Consumer Reports for its prompt action."
Sometimes, of course, Consumer Reports does get sued. The best-known example was a strident battle that lasted 16 years.
In 1988, the magazine found that the Suzuki Samurai tipped over too easily on its road tests. It declared the small SUV "not acceptable" and sales plunged. Eight years later — after the Samurai was no longer being made — Suzuki sued, claiming the test was designed to make the vehicle tip and Consumer Reports used the results to raise funds.
The Supreme Court refused to derail the lawsuit and in 2004 the magazine asked its readers to write to Suzuki "regarding its punitive lawsuit."
Five months later, the lawsuit was settled, with Suzuki getting no money and the two sides still differing on the validity of the 1988 test. Consumer Reports acknowledged that when it said the Samurai "easily rolls over in turns," it meant the severe turns that were part of its test.
On Friday, American Suzuki spokesman Mike Anson refused to comment on that case or Consumer Reports' new troubles.
A similar uproar erupted from the magazine's finding that the 1995-1996 Isuzu Troopers were prone to tip over. In 2000, a jury found that seven statements in the magazine article were untrue and one was published with reckless disregard for the truth. However, it did not order any monetary damages. Isuzu had claimed $244 million in losses.
In 2004, The Sharper Image Corp. sued Consumer Reports for libel, claiming an unfavorable review of an Ionic Breeze air purifier was false and malicious. The case was dismissed and Sharper Image had to pay Consumer Reports' costs.
Two months after the case ended, the magazine issued another review of the air purifier, criticizing it again. Spokesman Patrick Lenihan said Friday that Sharper Image would not comment on Consumer Reports.
In a regulatory filing Friday, Sharper Image disclosed a class-action settlement in which it offered more than $19 million in store credits and discounts to the more than 3 million people who bought the air purifier.
In 2000, Korbel Champagne Cellars decided that the magazine's "good" rating was not good enough. Its lawsuit accused Consumer Reports of "false, misleading, defamatory and disparaging comments." The magazine called the lawsuit "grotesque" and filed for dismissal. Korbel withdrew.
The dog food article apparently did not result in a lawsuit. Consumers Reports reported in 1998 that some dog foods lacked essential nutrients. It backed off soon after, and an official said there was "a systemic error in the measurements of various minerals we tested — potassium, calcium and magnesium."
Last year's April issue said that while hybrid gas-electric cars and trucks can save fuel, the higher prices and depreciation costs meant none of them were cheaper than their gas-guzzling counterparts over a five-year period. When the arithmetic of the depreciation costs was corrected, the Honda Civic and Toyota Prius hybrids came out slightly ahead.
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