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Honda small-claims hearing attracts owners of Civic hybrids

The case of fuel efficiency in Honda Civic hybrids may inspire other owners of the car to file similar claims against the auto giant.

January 26, 2012|By Jerry Hirsch, Los Angeles Times
  • Heather Peters stands with her 2006 Honda Civic hybrid at a news conference before hearings in her Small Claims Court case against Honda began this month in Torrance.
Heather Peters stands with her 2006 Honda Civic hybrid at a news conference… (Allen J. Schaben, Los Angeles…)

Honda Civic owners from Sacramento to Carlsbad, Calif., took off from work to attend an unusual Small Claims Court case in Torrance, where a lone consumer has sued American Honda Motor Co. over fuel economy claims.

The hearing Wednesday represented round two of a case that has garnered national attention pitting Honda Civic hybrid owner Heather Peters against the automotive giant.

Los Angeles County Superior Court Commissioner Douglas Carnahan heard testimony from Peters and Honda. Noting that the "case affects many more people than the average Small Claims Court case," Carnahan said he would issue a ruling soon, probably next week.

Civic hybrid owners such as Kathy Wood, a substitute teacher from Sacramento, and Brian Kent, a finance company manager from Carlsbad, were among those packing the small courtroom. They said they are waiting for the ruling before deciding whether they will file similar claims against Honda.

"I am inspired by what Heather is doing," said Wood, who said she is also frustrated that her Civic gets far less fuel efficiency than what Honda advertised.

Peters, a 46-year-old Los Angeles resident, is seeking $10,000 in damages from Honda for allegedly misrepresenting the mileage that drivers should expect from the Civic hybrid.

She 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.

Peters sued 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.

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.

But that didn't stop Honda from making an attempt. At one point in the hearing Honda corporate counsel David Peim leaned over to offer advice to the automaker's official representative, technical specialist Neil Schmidt.

Carnahan noticed the move and warned Peim that he was not allowed to participate in the hearing.

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. At the start of the hearing Wednesday, he short-circuited a move by Honda that would have added time and complexity to the case and rejected an 8-inch stack of documents Honda wanted to enter into the court record under seal.

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

But 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 was hoping other Civic owners would join the fray, filing 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.

"I have had 600 Honda owners contact me, and most of them seem to be waiting to find out what happens with this case," Peters said.

If she's successful, Peters could win damages many times the payment she would derive from the class-action lawsuit settlement. But Honda could appeal the ruling in Los Angeles County Superior Court, where the automaker would be allowed to bring in its army of lawyers to try to overturn any small-claims judgment.

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