Slow Down Your Speeding Hybrid; Peters' Civic Hybrid Case Ain't Over Yet

By Jacob Brown | February 02, 2012
We in the media have been taken aback by this David-versus-Goliath story of California resident Heather Peters beating American Honda in court over her 2006 Honda Civic Hybrid's apparently lackluster fuel economy. Honda's apparent inattentiveness to minding the car's real efficiencies helped cast the company as indifferent to her complaints. As we've reported, Peters was awarded $9867 in small claims court against the Japanese automaker. The widespread belief is that her experience gives a potentially lucrative "out" to the 200,000 people currently involved in a class action lawsuit against Honda, instead of accepting the $100 to $200 they have initially been promised. A win for helpless consumers against a faceless corporation, right? Not so fast. There's more to the story. For starters, Honda's not done fighting this. In a statement released by the automaker, spokesperson Chris Martin said, "We disagree with the judgment rendered in this case, and we plan to appeal the decision." That means Honda will now have the ability to use its legal team, armed with information and a much better strategy than the ill-prepared Neil Schmidt, an engineer who represented Honda in the small-claims court, which bars lawyers from participating.
[caption id="attachment_77871" align="alignright" width="300" caption="Heather Peters explains her Honda-issued service bulletin letter in small claims court."][/caption]
In the meantime, the Los Angeles Times reports that Peters plans to reapply for her license to practice law, likely a move that will save her money in appeals by representing herself. She told the Times that she is planning to go around and help other unhappy Civic Hybrid owners maximize their ability to receive remuneration. But it's important to keep some perspective. Small claims hearings happen on a widespread basis across the nation, many involving multinational corporations, and very few of them ever make headlines. The difference here is that while Peters has had the ability to speak before a thirsty media to get out her message, Honda has been reserved until its legal team has the opportunity to sift through all of its paperwork. Some of that paperwork is quite revealing, too. For example, in the 26-page summary released by Commissioner Doug Carnahan, who presided over the small claims hearings, he noted that Honda had sent "requests for a pretrial inspection of the vehicle," and that "All of these requests were denied by the court in chambers, with notice given." Therein lies the point of contention that will likely be the focus of debate in appeals court. With the only information of Peters' car's fuel economy in the court being pictures of digital readouts of her average fuel economy, little attention has been given to the car's daily driving routine or its environment. The most appropriate thing to do might be to get the car onto an EPA-rated dynamometer, having it run a simulated testing cycle, for a real apples-to-apples comparison. Fuel economy can vary from region to region, and fuel mixtures can vary from state to state based on laws. While 29 mpg strikes us as remarkably low for a Civic Hybrid, in the hands of another driver in another environment, it may do much better. We're not saying that Peters is wrong, but we are saying a lot of variables may not have been taken into account in the small claims courtroom. Yes, Peters won her small claims hearing. But this isn't over, and we're about to see Honda finally wake up when it can get its scientists and legal staff deeply involved in this case.