By on February 3, 2012

Remember the small claims suit, brought by a Los Angeles woman against Honda? The suit that has lawyers that are allegedly fighting to get justice for their clients more worried than care companies? Gee, what if everybody goes to small claims, where, in many jurisdictions lawyers are verboten? The court has spoken, and awarded the woman close to the $10,000 that are the maximum in California. Now, the matter is in the hands of the lawyers again.

Says the LA Times:

“A Los Angeles County court commissioner ruled that American Honda Motor Co. negligently misled Civic owner Heather Peters when it claimed the hybrid could achieve as much as 50 miles per gallon.

Court Commissioner Douglas Carnahan, who mailed his 26-page decision to Peters and Honda, awarded her $9,867.19 in damages. That is close to the maximum $10,000 allowed in Small Claims Court that the Los Angeles resident was seeking.

A copy of the 26 page decision, probably one of the longest ever handed down by Small Claims, can be downloaded here.

Donald Earl Childress III, who teaches civil procedure at Pepperdine University School of Law, calls the win was “amazing” and thinks it could affect litigation strategy in California and other states that don’t allow lawyers to represent either side in Small Claims Court:

“The fact that she won says that well-informed plaintiffs who forsake a class-action settlement and decide to take things into their own hands in the correct way may be vindicated in Small Claims Court. You need one person to stand up and get the win, and then other people will do it too.”

It may have been a pyrrhic victory. The The Nikkei [sub] reports that Honda will appeal by early March at the latest. “The appeals trial will be heard as an ordinary lawsuit,” with lawyers present.

Or, it may have been a clever publicity stunt on the part of Ms. Peters, a former attorney. More than 500 owners have contacted her through her website, DontSettleWithHonda.org. According to the LA Times, “Peters said she planned to reactivate her state law license so that she can represent other Civic owners in litigation against Honda.” She would have a nice list of prospective clients.

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29 Comments on “Small Claims Case Won, Goes To Real Court Now...”


  • avatar

    I read this post in CNN and thought that she had been “rewarded” the money by Honda for pointing out something wrong with their cars. HA!

    It’s a savvy move by someone with an eye on reviving her career and you and CNN and many otehrs are helping her, too.

  • avatar
    Oren Weizman

    If there was an award for most ingeniously successful troll, she would win

  • avatar
    Lokki

    Being too lazy to read the actual suit, I don’t understand how her actual damages could approach $10,000. The odd digits suggest a calulate (rather than round-number) determination of losses. But how many miles would you have to drive getting 25 mph vs 35 mph to reach $9K+ in losses?

    Somebody out there who can explain for me please? Bueller?

    • 0 avatar
      Bancho

      I don’t know all the specifics but:

      It was a hybrid Civic which claimed to get 40 something city/51 highway. In addition to the poor mileage there’s the premium for buying the hybrid in the first place (over one with a conventional engine and comparable equipment).

      Note: those were the pre-2008 MPG numbers

    • 0 avatar
      Pch101

      “I don’t understand how her actual damages could approach $10,000.”

      That is summarized on p. 25 of the decision. Mostly a combination of depreciation, extra fuel usage, costs of the battery and interest on those costs.

  • avatar
    geozinger

    The issue that started all this was the fact that after her car’s battery management was re-set by Honda, her fuel mileage kept decreasing. Apparently the mileage degraded to the point that it was no better than a regular Civic. Allegedly, Honda reset the battery management on these Civics because there were complaints about the batteries wearing out prematurely.

    If a factory authorized “service” made my car less efficient, I would be pretty angry. I can’t say I blame her, she’s not the only person to encounter this new characteristic of her “updated” car. Also, she tried to get satisfaction from Honda, but they denied any other remedies. Personally, I don’t know if I would sue, but it’s her right to do so.

    In a way, it’s too bad that she’s a former lawyer. But I can’t imagine someone like a hairdresser, for example, who would be able to negotiate all of the legal ins and outs of this kind of maneuver. I’ve been part of some class-action suits, the remedy I got was just a coupon for something I really no longer wanted. Big fat hairy deal.

    It was smart of her to go this route, she won’t get a new car or anything, and if the appeal goes against her, she wont even get the $9+K.

    But it sure beats a coupon for $100 off your next Honda purchase.

    Even with her being a former lawyer, and after this experience may be considering becoming active again, I doubt that all 500 people who have contacted her will sue Honda also. If she were smart, she’d sell litigation “kits” that could be used in different states. That would be more effective than winding through dozens of lawsuits.

  • avatar
    highlandmiata

    Is it really a pyrrhic victory? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pyrrhic_victory

    Maybe a false victory due to the obvious escalation, but not pyrrhic one. No losses were incurred that leave her less able to fight the next fight. Sure, she might not win the next one, but not because of this one.

    I won’t speak to the validity of her claim, but this tactic was clearly just a publicity stunt. Not sure whether she wants to get her practice up and going again, or if she is seeking class- action “reform,” but this really does seem like a huge waste of everyone’s resources.

  • avatar
    George B

    Her case has some merit. She bought a Civic Hybrid specifically because it could achieve fuel economy numbers approaching 50 mpg. She was reasonably happy with her hybrid until Honda changed her car’s software, after the purchase, to charge and discharge the battery pack less deeply to make the battery last for more years of service. However, this destroyed the whole reason for buying a hybrid by reducing her fuel economy close to that of a regular non-hybrid Civic. She asked Honda to either restore the original software or give her a regular Civic sans battery cost and weight.

    • 0 avatar
      Pch101

      “She was reasonably happy with her hybrid until Honda changed her car’s software”

      No, she wasn’t. According to the ruling, “Plaintiff was always dissatisfied with the mileage” and then spent three years trying to get them to fix it. The software patch was added two years into the process, and she claimed that patch made the situation worse.

  • avatar
    DC Bruce

    The “publicity stunt” idea has more merit than anything else, now that we know the plaintiff is a lawyer. I’m not familiar with small claims court jurisdiction in California, but I am in other states and every one I know of provides for an appeal “de novo” to the regular trial court. “De novo” means that you start from scratch and do it all over again; matters established as fact in the small claims case are not deemed facts in the appeal.

    Given all of the federally-mandated disclaimers around EPA mileage estimate stickers, I do not see how she has a case unless she can establish either: (1) Honda falsified the fuel economy test on which these numbers were based (not very likely) or (2) Honda altered the software on her car such that it was different from the car sample which was subjected to the EPA tests (imagine, for example, if Honda used the EPA mileage figures for a 4-cylinder Accord in advertising the 6-cylinder model.)

    Neither of these strike me as very likely to occur.

    As far as that goes, there seems to be general agreement that the Ford Fusion hybrid’s actual fuel economy performance is much less than the EPA numbers . . . but I haven’t heard of anyone suing about that.

    • 0 avatar
      Pch101

      “I do not see how she has a case”

      The decision is posted. It explains which parts of her case succeeded, and which didn’t. (She threw in the kitchen sink, and got just some of it.)

    • 0 avatar
      Chicago Dude

      She doesn’t “need” facts. She “needs” the testimony that Honda employees provided under oath during the small claims case.

      If lawyered-up Honda tries to make claims that are different then the non-lawyered-up Honda made in the previous case, she’s going to haul them into the courtroom and crucify them in front of the judge and jury.

      She’s going to win the appeal; Honda’s goal will be to make it too expensive to get the win.

  • avatar
    NormSV650

    I caught her on Rusty Humphries show. She described them, lawyers and Honda, as playing cat-and-mouse. Reminded me of Toyota’s floor mat memo. They got what they deserve.

  • avatar
    jmo

    The big question is why has Honda so badly mismanaged their hybrid strategy.

    • 0 avatar
      Zykotec

      This is absolutely the big question. As something of a Honda fan, (well, the best Japanese alternative to a car at least) I’ve respected most of their decisions and cars in the past. Their EPA numbers are often quite dead on in the real world too. So what went wrong with the Civic hybrids? A lot of times when cars are tested in Europe (with lower speedlimits, and more often manual transmissions) the cars can often exceed the EPA numbers for the American market, but not so with the Civic hybrid, even here in Norway I’ve seen testers barely managed more than 45 mpg.

  • avatar
    boltar

    I had a good friend who similarly sued Ford in small claims with similar results. The problem being that big auto companies just can’t help but play the Goliath card in legal proceedings and tend to make constant veiled threats of steamrollering the plaintiffs. And those kinds of tactics frequently backfire with small claims judges.

  • avatar
    GS650G

    Facing a 100 dollar coupon and a few free oil changes I don’t blame her. The Civic hybrid doesn’t command the attention the prius does because it’s a known fact they don’t get better mileage.
    A co-worker of mine bought one (gotta have a Honda thinking) and he said it was an overpriced small car that used the same amount of gas as his wife’s Civic a year older.
    He asked the service department to see if the “hybrid” was even connected on it.

  • avatar
    OUFink

    I have driven this model Civic Hybrid for months (borrowed from my father). I have achieved as high as 53mpg and as low as 41mpg. It was directly related to how I drove the car though, not some conspiracy. Honda definitely should have taken care of this long ago for the woman, but her one victory does not mean the Civic Hybrid doesn’t get the mileage it claims. We all know we can push a car and get terrible mileage if we want. I’d love to see what type of driver she was. Jeremy Clarkson was able to get a Prius to get 14mpg driving it around a race track!

  • avatar
    GoFaster58

    Honda’s lawyers will tear her up in a real court. She may have to pay their fees. She may be sorry she brought such a frivolous lawsuit in the first place. Nobody gets the mileage posted on the sticker.

  • avatar
    daviel

    If they have a trial de novo for appeals from small claims, she would be wise to ask for a jury.

  • avatar
    daviel

    Additionally, I was not aware she had Honda employees testifying at the small claims trial. I hope she had the foresight to have had a court reporter record their testimony under oath in that proceeding. Even though she trial will start over from scratch on appeal, that testimony can be useful to help keep Honds from changing its story in the 2nd trial.

  • avatar
    daviel

    Additionally, I was not aware she had Honda employees testifying at the small claims trial. I hope she had the foresight to have had a court reporter record their testimony under oath in that proceeding. Even though the trial will start over from scratch on appeal, that testimony can be useful to help keep Honda from changing its story in the 2nd trial.

  • avatar
    AoLetsGo

    The picture tells a thousand words, but I can sum it up in two
    LAWYER CALIFORNIA

  • avatar
    ronin

    Ha ha. I successfully sued Honda in an Ohio small claims court 25 years ago over a warranty claim. It did not somehow become a national cause celebre.

    People sue big corporations in small claims court all over the country every day, and win. Somehow that doesn’t make the news.

    The big deal on this story is not the case, but the fact that somehow she got the media to buy in that this is a big deal.

    Small claims courts usually don’t have transcripts and are not referenceable for precedent. Each individual case will have to win or lose on its own.

    Honda is stupid for letting this case go this far without some settlement. They’ll be even stupider to appeal it in a municipal court, and risk losing there- especially when she request a jury.

  • avatar
    don1967

    Much as I hate to see lawyers winning frivolous MPG lawsuits, this one is a bit more complicated in that Honda allegedly reprogrammed the car after the sale to burn more fuel than advertised. Pretty tough to defend that.

    With some 90,000 cars affected by the reprogramming campaign, Honda is undoubtedly weighing its options in how to solve the battery life issue. They’re going to have to write some cheques at some point.

  • avatar
    Alex the guy with the Accord Coupe

    Death by duckbite. If there are 500 9k verdicts that Honda needs to appeal, the cost of appeal usually requires posting a bond in the value of the judgment below, or higher. Then you need to pay attorneys for each appeal. Ouch.

  • avatar
    daviel

    Honda cannot lawyer her to death – she’a a lawyer herself.

  • avatar
    Herm

    Honda reprogrammed the car to put less strain on the battery (read that as a lower level of assist), the batteries were failing at an increased rate and that was their “solution”.. but if Honda can prove the car still gets the same EPA number as before then there is no case. How could it get the same numbers with less assist?.. because the EPA cycles are somewhat gentle. Is there a warranty on performance even if the car continues to work adequately?

    Meanwhile both Ford and Toyota did a proper design job and have no issues with their batteries.

    I believe the battery warranty in California is 10 years, per CARB requirements.

  • avatar

    Two items:

    1. Please note: In the picture above this article, she is driving the car in question.

    2. She might be an inefficient driver… In my Civic I get 28-31 MPG city, my wife gets 20-23 MPG city… YOUR MILEAGE MAY VARY.


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