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Business & Media Institute

 

Media Myth: Nine Worst Business Stories
(of the Last 50 Years)


4. Accelerating Audis
 

     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 accelerator.)

     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 1988.

     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 manufacturers.”

     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 demonstration.

     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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