TORRANCE (AP) — A Los Angeles woman who expected her hybrid Honda Civic to be a high-mileage machine wants the automaker to pay for not delivering the 50 mpg it promised. But rather than being one of thousands in a class-action lawsuit, she took her case Tuesday to small claims court.
Experts said Heather Peters has a better chance of winning her case in a court with more relaxed standards and could get a payout many times higher than the few hundred dollars offered to class-action plaintiffs.
Peters said she's been contacted by hundreds of owners who also want to take their chances with small-claims, where there are no attorneys' fees and cases are decided quickly.
"If I prevail and get $10,000, they have 200,000 of these cars out there," said Peters.
Peters, a state employee and ex-lawyer, argued that Honda knew her car wouldn't get the 50 mpg as advertised before a judge in Torrance,
Neil Schmidt, a technical expert for Honda, called Peters' $10,000 claim excessive for her 2006 Civic Hybrid. He said the federal government had required Honda to post the highest mileage the car could get, but said the mileage varies depending on how the car is driven — for instance, if it gets stuck often in stop-and-go traffic.
Peters said she would have never purchased the car if she had known that.
"The sales force said 50 miles per gallon, but they didn't say if you run your air conditioning and you remain in stop-and-go traffic, you're going to get 29 to 30 miles per gallon," she said. "If they did, I would have gotten the regular Civic."
If other Civic owners follow her lead, she estimates Honda could be forced to pay as much as $2 billion in damages.
Experts say there are many upsides to Peters' unusual move.
"I would not be surprised if she won," said Richard Cupp Jr., who teaches product-liability law at Pepperdine University. "The judge will have a lot of discretion, and the evidentiary standards are relaxed in small-claims court."
Small claims courts generally handle private disputes that do not involve large amounts of money. In many states, that means small debts, quarrels between tenants and landlords and contract disagreements. Attorneys aren't usually there; in California, litigants aren't allowed to have lawyers argue their case.
A victory for Peters could encourage others to take the same simplified route, he said.
"There's an old saying among lawyers," Cupp said. "If you want real justice, go to small-claims court."
But he questioned whether her move would start a groundswell of similar cases. He suggested that few people would want to spend the time and energy that Peters has put into her suit when the potential payoff is as little as a few thousand dollars.
Peters opted out of a series of class-action lawsuits filed on behalf of Honda hybrid owners over the cars' fuel economy, when she saw a proposed settlement would give plaintiffs no more than $200 cash and a rebate of $500 or $1,000 to purchase a new Honda. Honda sold about 200,000 of the cars over the period covered by the settlement.