Myth: Nine Worst Business Stories
(of the Last 50 Years)
Vehicle problems are a common theme in
anti-business reporting. The media seem eager to show vehicles as
dangerous and manufacturers as careless in their approach to safety.
A Nov. 23, 1986, “60 Minutes” segment called
“Out of Control” reported the odd problem of cars, specifically the
Audi 5000, suddenly accelerating and injuring or killing children.
“What we’re talking about is the sudden
rocketing of a car out of control after the driver switches gears
from park into either drive or reverse,” Ed Bradley reported,
according to a transcript in Peter Huber’s 1992 book “Galileo’s
Revenge.” (One CBS archivist told the Business & Media
Institute a transcript of the segment was unavailable due to a
“legal hold.” Another did not respond to requests for a copy.)
The segment highlighted Kristi Bradosky, an
Ohio woman who killed her son Joshua in February 1986 when she ran
him over with the family’s Audi.
The Audi brake pedal, unlike many American
models at the time, was small and located closer to the gas pedal
than some drivers were accustomed to. Nonetheless, Bradosky told “60
Minutes” and all of its viewers that Audi’s manufacturer,
Volkswagen, was to blame for her son’s death.
The family had a $30-million lawsuit pending
against Volkswagen at the time the “60 Minutes” report aired. (A
jury determined in 1988 that the death was not due to a defect with
the car, based at least in part on testimony that Bradosky admitted
to police that her foot had slipped off the brake and onto the
The report used video to illustrate a car
suddenly accelerating out of control. But it was later revealed that
the car used in the demonstration was rigged with a pressurized
transmission set up by William Rosenbluth, one of the experts who
testified for the Bradoskys in their lawsuit against Volkswagen.
In “Galileo’s Revenge,” author Huber called the
segment “an opening shot in the litigator’s struggle for public
sympathy, tactical advantage, and psychological edge.”
The report was devastating for Audi, which had
a peak year in 1985 selling more than 74,000 cars. Under pressure
from the U.S. government, the manufacturer issued a recall on the
model in January 1987. Fewer than 23,000 Audi 5000s were sold in
Sales slumped so badly that analysts suggested
Volkswagen consider taking Audi off the U.S. market. By 1989,
lawsuits against Audi sought a total of $5 billion, according to a
report in the journal Media & Marketing Decisions. Parking lots even
banned Audis from their spaces.
While some legal decisions found Audi liable
for damages due to the design of the brake pedal, more and more
decisions came down in Audi’s favor. Alice Weinstein, who had
suffered a broken nose in a “sudden acceleration” accident and filed
four lawsuits against Audi, was fined $20,000 for frivolous
litigation, the New York newspaper Newsday reported on Dec. 5, 1989.
Weinstein, with help from the New York Public
Interest Research Group (NYPIRG), had created the Audi Victims
Network in 1984 to collect complaints about “sudden acceleration”
and help “victims” pursue retribution from Volkswagen.
In March 1989, the National Highway Traffic
Safety Administration released a report attributing the acceleration
to “pedal misapplication,” and found no mechanical errors in the
vehicles that would have caused arbitrary movement.
Did CBS or “60 Minutes” apologize? Not quite.
Bradley tacked a report on the NHSTA study onto the end of the March
12 broadcast, the first episode after the study was released. He
said the NHTSA “supported the position of Audi and other
But he also rebroadcast the claims from
litigious drivers that they had been pressing the brake. He kept the
blame focused on Audi by focusing on the report’s finding that “the
problem could be aggravated by vehicle design, the shape, location
and feel of gas and brake pedals.” And he didn’t mention the rigged
The legal decisions and NHTSA report in its
favor weren’t enough to salvage Audi’s damaged reputation in a
timely way. The New York Times reported in 1993 that Audi had “still
not fully recovered from the incident.”
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