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Audi and The Case of Pedal + Media “Misapplication”

audi 5000 sudden acceleration

by Gunnar Heinrich ::: img E.T. via ::: Audi 5000 Sudden Acceleration

IN one of the auto industry’s more sordid moments, and in circumstances that mirror Toyota’s sudden acceleration recall, 24 years ago Audi suffered the worst public relations crisis to befall any car company since Ralph Nader’s damming exposé on the Chevy Corvair in his 60s polemic, Unsafe at Any Speed.

Thousands of Audi owners sought damages – real or imagined – in nationwide class action lawsuits against the German car maker. Their case claimed that (the 80s) Audi 5000 suffered from an electrical/mechanical defect that led to sudden, uncontrollable, full throttle acceleration.

In one achingly tragic incident, a mother lost control of her 5000 sedan while reversing and ran over her six year old daughter. She sued Audi for $48 million.

By the time CBS’ 60 Minutes ran the story on runaway Audis  in 1986 (including the mother-daughter tragedy) that featured a rigged-scenario that purported to highlight through simulation the defect in an Audi 5000 that lead to sudden acceleration (not dissimilar to ABC’s recent report methods on the Toyota Avalon) Audi nearly went bust.

Sales dropped from 74K in 1984 to just 12K by 1991. And, as it happens, Audi may not have been at fault.

The Manhattan Institute for Policy Research re-posted a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece published on Dec. 18, 1989 which highlighted how the Audi lawsuits and media frenzy provided an instance where public hysteria and faulty journalism nearly destroyed a car company while making a mockery of the judicial system.

“In America, where we can’t attach blame to anyone whose name doesn’t end with Inc., [the source of the problem] was called “pedal misapplication.” And unsurprisingly, it’s not just Audi drivers who commit it.

So, in the long run, the truth does come out. In the short run, the lawyers swoop in. Most soon recognized that they couldn’t prove any defect in the Audi’s engine or transmission. But our liability system today is a master of the bait and switch—the switch was to “pedal misdesign.”

The article goes on to suggest that drivers who were unfamiliar with Audi’s closely positioned brake – throttle pedal design likely confused the gas pedal for the brake pedal and that when Shift-Lock park override was introduced to all cars, the number of such runaway incidents with Audis and other marques plummeted.

In the end, it was a lose-lose situation for Audi and its aggrieved customers.

Hyperbole took its toll on the automaker’s sales while some of the victims failed to collect on damages. Case in point: the mother who was featured in the 60 Minutes story did not win her case. According to the WSJ:

“[I]nvestigating police officer and witnesses at the scene testified that after the accident the distraught mother had admitted that her foot had slipped off the brake. The jury found no defect in the car.”

Is there a lesson that can be applied to the current Toyota hearings, recalls, and impending lawsuits? Yes: in the search for truth, prudence is the best application of public inquiry.