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Honda loses Civic hybrid Small Claims Court lawsuit

February 01, 2012|By Jerry Hirsch
  • Civic hybrid owner Heather Peters won an unusual Small Claims Court lawsuit against American Honda Motor Co.
Civic hybrid owner Heather Peters won an unusual Small Claims Court lawsuit… (Associated Press )

The owner of a Honda Civic hybrid won an unusual Small Claims Court lawsuit against American Honda Motor Co.

Los Angeles County Superior Court Commissioner Douglas Carnahan ruled that the giant automaker mislead Civic owner Heather Peters when it claimed that the hybrid could achieve as much as 50 miles per gallon.

Peters said the Torrance Small Claims Court commissioner awarded her $9,867 in damages, very close to the maximum $10,000 allowed in Small Claims Court that the Los Angeles resident was seeking.

“It is a victory for Civic Hybrid owners and consumers everywhere,” Peters said. “Sometimes big justice comes in small packages.”

 Her award was far greater than the damages Peters would have collected if she had signed on to a class-action lawsuit settlement that would end larger litigation that makes many of the same claims against Honda.

Peters sued Honda after learning that a proposed class-action lawsuit settlement that covered her 2006 vehicle would pay trial lawyers $8.5 million while Civic hybrid owners would get as little as $100 and rebate coupons for the purchase of a new car.

Honda representatives said the automaker was withholding comment until it had read the ruling.

Peters' victory could be short-lived.  Honda has the right to ask that the trial be heard again in Los Angeles County Superior Court, where it will be allowed to bring in its army of lawyers to try to overturn any small-claims judgment.

Peters argued that Honda advertised that the car would get about 50 miles per gallon, but "the car never got more than 41 or 42 even on its very best day." She said the fuel economy dropped below 30 mpg after a software update intended to prolong the life of the car's battery and improve performance.

The former attorney decided to file the case in Small Claims Court to prevent Honda from bringing a highly paid legal team to the battle. California law prohibits companies from using attorneys to mount a defense in Small Claims Court.

Honda defended itself by contending that Peters' low fuel mileage numbers resulted from the way she drives or how she maintains her Civic.

With nearly three hours of testimony over two days, Carnahan noted that this was one of the longest Small Claims Court cases he knew of.

Honda has acknowledged that the battery on 2006 through 2008 Civic hybrids "may deteriorate and eventually fail" earlier than expected. When the battery pack can't be charged to full capacity, the car relies more on the gas engine and fuel economy suffers.

A proposed class-action settlement dealing with similar issues was rejected last year in federal court in Riverside by Judge Virginia Phillips, who agreed with 26 attorneys general and multiple consumer groups that the deal did not pay Civic owners enough.

Peters wants other Civic owners to file suits against Honda in various Small Claims Court jurisdictions across the state, making the automaker fight a multi-front legal battle in which it would be unable to bring its legal forces to bear.

She said about 500 owners have contacted her through her DontSettleWithHonda.org website that explains how Peters filed her lawsuit against the automaker.

Peters said she planned to reactivate her state license so that she can represent other Civic owners in litigation against Honda.

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