Civic Duty: We Weigh In on One Woman’s Small Claims Lawsuit Against Honda
It wasn’t that hard to imagine myself sitting in as a jury member on the case of Heather Peters vs. Torrance, Calif.-based American Honda. In fact, I was sitting in the jurors’ box, listening to both sides state their cases. But it wasn’t some grand trial of the century, it was a small claims hearing worth $10,000. And I wasn’t a juror, but merely a journalist covering a story about a woman suing a big corporation because her 2006 Honda Civic Hybrid's fuel economy is 40 percent less than what it's rated after months of campaigning about it on her website. However, there's the potential for seemingly Quixotic case to have much farther reaching effects than you’d think possible in such a venue. [caption id="attachment_72447" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="Honda's legal consultant, Neil Schmidt, and 2006 Honda Civic Hybrid owner Heather Peters in court"][/caption] Peters, a former corporate defense lawyer, says she didn’t think she’d ever have to see the inside of a courtroom again after retiring in 2000. That changed Tuesday when she told Commissioner Douglas Carnahan, who oversaw her hearing, that Honda was allegedly selling its Civic Hybrid model as a 50-mpg car despite knowing it couldn’t get anywhere near that number. “The car never got more than 41 to 42 mpg even on its best days in the best conditions,” she said, but further explained, “I’m not going to sue over [a 20-percent difference].” In 2008, she brought her car in for a service campaign to reprogram the software that controls the gas engine and battery. She says she was told it would prolong her car’s battery life after noticing it behaving sluggishly and watching her battery range deteriorate. Peters claims Honda prolonged battery life by reprogramming it to use the electric motor less, lowering her fuel economy to 29-mpg—slightly better than half what Honda had said it would do. She then decided to take action. “I paid for a Civic Hybrid and got a regular Civic,” she says, noting an almost $10,000 disparity between her car and an equivalent Civic LX. Not willing to settle for the proposed $100 to $200 Civic Hybrid owners are to get in a pending class action lawsuit, she hopes her hearing “shows that these cases are worth a lot more.” She came prepared with a stack of marketing literature, EPA documentation, government reports, and memos distributed by Honda in addition to her car’s regular technician, Arnel Maala, to testify on her behalf. She also submitted a subpoena for Honda to bring more confidential documentation, but Honda litigation consultant Neil Schmidt brought none of it. “I was absolutely stunned,” Peters said. “Honda intentionally ignored a court order.” [caption id="attachment_72443" align="alignright" width="300" caption="Honda's Neil Schmidt presenting the EPA fuel economy figures in court"][/caption] The hearing continued despite the lack of documentation. Peters argued that the EPA numbers were unachievable and fraudulent; Schmidt said her cost analysis for requesting $10,000 was off-base. He said asking for a few hundred dollars was more realistic. But Schmidt never said she was entitled to nothing. He claimed all automakers know EPA figures are unrealistic in real-world driving, and Honda submitted a request to help reshape testing procedures in 2006 sometime after Peters purchased her car. Claiming she can show damages of more than $122,000 for her car’s subpar fuel efficiency, Peters is only asking for the $10,000 because she doesn’t have the “time, money, or energy to go to regular court” and take on Honda’s multimillion-dollar legal team. In small claims, she had an easier time to get her paperwork together to show that Davids can take on Goliaths. Her strategy has ostensibly created the courtroom version of the 99 percenters. If she wins, the implications potentially could reach farther than the $10,000 she hopes to get. It could force automakers to rethink what numbers they put on their window stickers, and possibly even force a re-evaluation of the EPA's testing procedures. In a statement issued today by Honda, the company says Peters never contacted it to complain about its fuel economy disparity until Nov. 2011. "We do not believe Ms. Peters was deceived," Honda said in its statement, noting that the fuel economy numbers used were in "strict compliance with federal regulations promulgated by the United States Environmental Protection Agency." Sitting courtside, it appeared Peters presented a strong case that went much further than an upset woman scorned by an automaker. After months of trying to get Honda’s attention, she may have finally succeeded more than she could have ever imagined, more so if she actually wins. In such a case, Honda may appeal, allowing the automaker the opportunity to use its legal team, according to California law. “I could have filed [the lawsuit] anywhere,” the North Los Angeles resident says. “I filed it here because I wanted [Honda] to have no excuse for not coming.”
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