Honda Strikes Back: Automaker Goes for Jugular in Civic Hybrid Appeals Case

By Jacob Brown | April 16, 2012
"This is not a typical court case," Judge Dudley W. Gray II said at 10:07 Friday morning. He'd go on to repeat himself another half-dozen times in front of an audience of 22 people on hand for the appeals hearing of Heather Peters v. American Honda in his Torrance, Calif. courtroom. It is, perhaps, one of the biggest deals to come from a small court hearing in recent memory, as Peters filed suit against Honda after her 2006 Honda Civic Hybrid's fuel economy took a nosedive. She claimed it was due, in part, to the car's computers undergoing reprogramming during a service bulletin. She also claimed she contacted Honda and got nowhere with them and didn't want to settle with a relatively small sum expected to come from an ongoing class action suit related to the Civic Hybrid's defective battery pack. At the first hearing, Peters largely had her way with the evidence, suggesting Honda had the ability to reverse its claims of not being able to achieve an EPA-estimated 50 mpg with any Civic Hybrid. Commissioner Douglas Carnahan continued her hearing to Jan. 25 because he had further questions about the evidence. Afterward, he awarded Peters $9,867 for lost money on added fuel costs, hurt resale value, and punitive damages from misleading advertising, among other factors. Honda appealed the case, set initially for April 13, to better explain its side of the story.
Peters took more than an hour and a half to have her say with Judge Gray. Before she finished, he asked her, "Why didn't you just sell the car?" She said she had planned for it to be a long-term vehicle, having traded down from previously owning three BMWs and a 2005 Mazda RX-8 in succession before picking up her Civic Hybrid. Amid health issues and an impending divorce, she opted to go for a car she thought would be good for 200,000 miles, as she had seen plenty of Hondas supposedly lasting that long.
"It's the least attractive, least sporty car I've ever purchased," lamented Peters. But she realized her days of driving her Mazda were over, a car rated at 16 mpg city/22 mpg highway. "Did you test drive any other cars?" asked Gray. "I don't recall," said Peters. She eventually conceded that she had only previously driven a friend's Prius, but "spent hours" in the Honda showroom before finally closing the deal on her 2006 Honda Civic Hybrid. Per her testimony, her Civic has been "completely maintained 100 percent to recommendations." Yet, she said just last week her car averaged 26.6 mpg over 150 miles. It has more than 50,000 miles on it. "I hoped the class actions were going to fix it," she said. "I hoped the service update was going to fix it. But they didn't, and that's why we're here now." Honda Gets Its Chance to Speak Honda's legal defense, led by attorney Roy Brisbois, then had its turn. Brisbois began peeling away Peters' argument. Peters' car, per her admission, is no longer shod with low rolling resistance tires, which could cause her car to lose 1 to 2 mpg on average. And though this was a small claims hearing, Brisbois began cross-examining Peters, something that doesn't usually happen in small claims hearings. Remember, though, as Judge Gray said at the outset, this isn't a typical court case. He picked up a copy of the pamphlet Peters used when shopping for her 2006 Civic Hybrid—"More horses, less thirsty," it said. "You do realize this page is for the non-hybrid Civic, right?" Peters didn't. "You're a sports car enthusiast," continued Brisbois. "Yes, I am," said Peters. "You drove [your Civic] like you drove any other car?" Brisbois asked. "Presumably slower than your sports cars," he added caustically. Honda's defense tore into Peters with fast-paced questioning. But, at noon, Gray was forced to clear out the courtroom, and reconvene the hearing for next Thursday at 10 a.m. As the courtroom cleared, about a dozen people congregated in the hallway. They were all Honda employees, waiting on a verdict that would be delayed until yet another day. Honda spokesman Chris Martin said he couldn't offer any comment on the case since it was still pending, but he said he and other Honda representatives would be willing to speak after the conclusion of the appeals case. If it hadn't been confirmed earlier, dragging a small claims appeal hearing into a second day after two previous days of hearings definitely wasn't typical. Then again, considering how unusual this case has been from the outset, we shouldn't be surprised. Not at all.