Calif. Woman Takes Honda To Small Claims Court Over Hybrid Mileage

Jan 5, 2012
Originally published on January 5, 2012 5:27 pm

A California woman is taking Honda to small claims court, claiming her Civic hybrid never gave her the 50 miles per gallon advertised.

All Things Considered's Melissa Block spoke to Andrea Chang, a Los Angeles Times business reporter who was in court on Tuesday as Heather Peters made her case.

Essentially, Chang explained, Peters decided to opt out of a class-action settlement that would have given her as little as $100 and awarded the attorneys $8.5 million.

The 46-year-old Los Angeles resident, who is also a lawyer, decided to even the playing field by filing her suit in a small claims court, which doesn't allow the parties to retain lawyers.

Chang says Peters showed up in court with advertisements that claimed her car would give her 50 miles to the gallon. She came armed with hundreds of pictures of her dashboard showing that she got at best 42 miles per gallon and after a software update that number dropped to fewer than 30 miles per gallon.

Honda, said Chang, sent a technical specialist to the trial. He made two arguments: first, that the EPA comes up with the miles-per-gallon number and Honda is required to use it; and second, that the amount of mileage a person gets out of a car depends on how he drives it or even the pressure in the tires.

Chang told Melissa the commissioner listening to the case seemed sympathetic toward Peters. "He listened and didn't scoff at anything," said Chang.

The big story here, though, is the kind of fallout the case may have if the judge rules in Peters' favor. She's asking for $10,000 and advocating for others not to settle with Honda and to "sue for more." Peters has even started a website.

Chang said we'll know the result of the suit next week at the latest. But if it doesn't go Honda's way, the company can appeal to a superior court and there it will represented by high-priced lawyers. Plus, Chang said, how many Honda owners have the time and will to fight a case in small claims court?

Much more of Melissa's conversation with Chang on tonight's All Things Considered. Tune in to your local NPR member station to listen. We'll post the as-aired version of the interview here, a bit later on.

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Honda is also having some growing pains with its Civic Hybrid. In its commercials, Honda has appealed to environmentalists and the thrifty.


BLOCK: That was Honda's sales pitch for the 2006 model at least, back when Heather Peters of Los Angeles was in the market for a car. She bought a Civic Hybrid only to find, she says, that it got closer to 41 or 42 miles per gallon on its best day. And that dipped to 30 miles per gallon after a system upgrade. She's now suing Honda in an intriguing venue: a California small claims court. She wants the maximum award she can get there, $10,000.

Andrea Chang of the Los Angeles Times was in court to hear the arguments. Andrea Chang, welcome to the program.

Thanks for having me.

And Heather Peters is not the only owner of a Civic Hybrid to take issue with that promise of 50 miles per gallon. There's, in fact, a class-action lawsuit that's been working its way through the courts for years now. Why didn't Ms. Peters just join that suit?

ANDREA CHANG: Well, she was pretty upset after learning that the proposed class-action lawsuit settlement was only going to give her what she called pennies on the dollar. She said she was upset that trial lawyers would get about $8.5 million while Civic Hybrid owners would get as little as $100 and rebate coupons for the purchase of a new car. So pretty disappointed with that outcome, she decided to file her own lawsuit in small claims court in Torrance, which she called the Judge Judy route.

BLOCK: Uh-huh. Now, Heather Peters is a former lawyer herself. So she files this lawsuit in small claims court and claims that, look, she - false advertising, I didn't get my 50 miles per gallon. How does Honda respond to that?

Well, Honda brought one of its technical specialists to small claims court in Torrance on Tuesday. And what they said was, look, first of all, when Honda advertises 50 miles per gallon, those aren't the numbers that Honda itself is putting out, that those are independent testing that comes from the EPA. And Honda, he said, is required to use those numbers. There are no other numbers that Honda can use.

CHANG: And other than that, you know, they're not promising 50 miles per gallon. Obviously, that depends on how you drive. And then the specialist went on to call Ms. Peters' $10,000 claim ridiculous. And he mentioned that, you know, even if you do the math and look at how much extra money she spent on fuel since she bought that car in 2006, it really doesn't add up to more than $1,000. And that was his main claim: She was asking for way more than what she really deserved from having this problematic car.

BLOCK: Although her point is, I gather, that if she had known she was going to get 30 miles per gallon, she wouldn't have paid more to buy a hybrid. She just would've bought a regular Civic.

CHANG: That's right.


CHANG: Exactly. She said she would've spent - I think it was 15 or $16,000 to get a regular Civic, to not spend - I think she ended up spending about $25,000 to get that hybrid model. And the judge at that point mentioned, well, you know, if I give you $10,000, you're still going to keep the car, right? To which she said yes.

BLOCK: It's interesting because Heather Peters is also encouraging other owners of Civic Hybrids to take their cases to small claims court as she has done. She has a domain name: What are you hearing from experts about how much of a shot her case has in small claims court?

I think experts feel that she's someone who's very savvy. She understands how to navigate the court system. And she's obviously really fired up about this. She's upset about what has happened to her, and she's done a lot to rally other Civic owners to support her and join her. And, in fact, at the courthouse on Tuesday, a number of other hybrid owners showed up just to see how it was going to go. And they told me, if she's successful, that that would really help encourage them to do the same.

CHANG: But I think the thing that is worth noting is lawyers have mentioned that even if Heather Peters is successful, Honda at that point could appeal to Los Angeles Superior Court. And when they do so, they will be allowed to have their lawyers then. So under that situation, they're kind of right back where they started. And now, Heather Peters is at a huge disadvantage.

BLOCK: And what's the time frame here, both for a ruling in this case before small claims court and what's going on with the class-action settlement that was proposed?

CHANG: Well, in the Heather Peters case, the estimates vary. I mean, it could be as early as this week, maybe next week. I wouldn't expect it to go much longer than that. And then separately, in the class-action lawsuit that's pending, claimants have until February 11th to decide if they also want to follow Ms. Peters and opt out. Or if not, then a judge in San Diego is expected to make a ruling on whether or not to accept the proposed settlement on March 16th.

BLOCK: Andrea Chang is a business reporter with the Los Angeles times. Andrea, thanks so much.

Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.