Skip to content
Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Corporations Continue to Bring Frivolous Litigation

For the past two years, big companies have been going after the few pockets of resistance remaining inside the big electronic media with frivolous law suits demanding billions of dollars for spurious damages.

It started with General Motors bringing NBC to its knees through that television network’s parent company — General Electric. GM and GE have done business with each other for many decades.

GM’s complaint, as you may recall, was over supposedly rigged crash tests that purported to show viewers how vulnerable occupants were to rupture of side-saddle fuel tanks in millions of GM trucks when struck from the side by another vehicle.

Actually, NBC tried to simulate a crash test on the cheap, but the disputed segment of the test was not relevant to the program’s main point — the lack of crash protection for the fuel tank’s location.

A few weeks later Inside Edition showed actual films from GM of its own fuel tank crash tests on these trucks that were far more devastating to GM which, despite many fatalities, has refused to recall these trucks.

Nonetheless, with GE executives breathing down their neck, the NBC shows anchors were forced to go on the air and apologize to GM. NBC paid for GM’s expenses and GM dropped the suit.

That surrender did not go unnoticed in the executive suites of the tobacco companies who now have been brought to their knees, ABC which groveled and conceded after facing a multibillion dollar law suit by Philip Morris. Even the corporate attorneys for ABC did not advise the network to cave. The ABC reporters who got the story on nicotine manipulation and cigarettes refused to go along with the apology. But Disney was in the process of buying ABC and well, business is business.

Now comes the censorship by CBS attorneys of an interview on Sixty Minutes with a former tobacco company (Brown and Williamson) scientist. The lawyers said that it was too risky in case of a big lawsuit by Brown and Williamson (B&W) because a court could rule that CBS induced the scientist to break a confidentiality agreement with B&W when he entered their employment. Mike Wallace went ballistic and delivered a personal disagreement at the end of the program assuring his audience that Sixty Minutes will not so pull its punches in the future.

There is no case law holding the media liable for interviewing a person who has a private gag agreement with an employer. Nonetheless, because CBS had agreed to hold the scientist harmless, in case B&W sued him, and had paid him for technical advise on a previous program but not on this program, the CBS attorneys said NO.

Columnists of all stripes, along with editorials, condemned the ABC and CBS surrenders as setting dangerous precedents. Morley Safer, Wallace’s colleague, called on network lawyers to “protect the newsroom from, shall we say, corporate bullies out there.”

Each time a network or newspaper runs for cover when a big company snorts about a potential lawsuit, other “corporate bullies” are encouraged to try to win by intimidation.

In CBS’ case, it was to be sold to Westinghouse a few days after the Sixty Minutes broadcast. Former Washington Post editor, Ben Bradlee, told Charlie Rose that he thought the pending closure of the CBS sale played a role. What no one mentioned on this show is that CBS officials had sizable stock holdings that would be reduced in value if the Westinghouse purchase had not gone through.

To further stifle the media from exposing their misdeeds, big companies are claiming copyright violations for self-incriminating company memos obtained by the press. Other claims are for defamation (truth is a defense) and what is called “tortious interference with economically advantageous relationships”, (e.g. gag agreements). None of these claims have much basis in case law when public companies bring them in court against defendants. Moreover, what are the damages — can Philip Morris — booming with profits — show a connection between the ABC program and lost sales?

These are truly frivolous suits that damage the First Amendment rights of both broadcasters and viewers. Yet the Gingrich-Dole crowd chose to restrict claims by injured workers or consumers in a bill that has passed both Houses. Somehow, the bill did not restrict the rights of corporations such as the tobacco companies in bringing patently frivolous litigation.

But then, an injured homemaker, child or worker are not known for making large campaign contributions to Congressional politicians.