Back in 2012, a class-action lawsuit alleged that Honda knowingly advertised MPG estimates that aren’t realistic for anyone with a commute that involves stop-n-go traffic, hills, or a desire to go above 15mph.
The hearing was held on March 16th, 2012 and the potential payout was as underwhelming as the car’s fuel economy performance. At the time you were only eligible for a $100 cash payment plus a coupon as low as $500 towards another non-Civic Hybrid Honda. But wait, there’s more! Class members also received a “fuel economy video describing ways to maximize and optimize vehicle fuel economy.” In other words, a video that insists that you’re a bad driver.
Don’t all jump up at once. Thankfully, there was another option.
The Peters vs Honda Lawsuit
Heather Peters, an angry Civic Hybrid owner from California, was a bit miffed when she learned that the class-action settlement would only give her a “goodie bag” of coupons and videos. Meanwhile, the trial lawyers received $8.5 million dollars.
Yes, $8.5 million.
So instead, Peters planned on something a little bit bolder. She sued Honda directly in small claims court. Outside of a little elbow grease, there are multiple benefits to this approach. Each state is different, but generally follow the same guidelines. In California:
- Honda can’t hire a high-priced attorney to represent them.
- Peters can receive up to $10,000 in compensation.
Peters made her argument in court on January 3rd, 2012. She claimed Honda knowingly deceived her by advertising an MPG rating that is unattainable in real-world driving scenarios. She said the sales staff proudly displayed “50 MPG” but didn’t tell her that rating didn’t include doing things like stopping at stop signs. Minor details like that.
I think we all understand that the EPA estimates are just that: estimates. But Peters claims she regularly gets a combined MPG under 30, which is roughly equivalent to what you can expect from a non-hybrid Civic. She said if she had known that up front, she wouldn’t have bothered with the Hybrid and all its headaches.
Honda’s defense was that the EPA does independent testing of fuel economy and requires that their results are displayed on the window stickers.
“We have no choice but to use the EPA figures. We have to put these numbers on the label,” argued technical specialist Neil Schmidt of Honda.
A good argument … except it’s wrong. The EPA says that the federal mileage testing provides only the maximum number a maker may quote. If a vehicle is more likely to deliver 35 in real-world conditions an automaker has the right to go with that figure, though sticking with an EPA-sanctioned 40 MPG is more likely to catch a consumer’s eye.
Maybe Honda should change their argument to: “But everyone else is doing it.”
On February 1st, 2012, Heather Peters was successful in her landmark case against Honda for making false claims about fuel economy in the Civic Hybrid. As it turns out, one person with a strong case (and good deal of bravado can strike a blow against a major automotive manufacturer.
Out of a possible $10,000 dollars, the maximum award in California small claims court, Peters was awarded $9,687. Hopefully Honda will use the remaining $313 dollars they didn’t have to pay towards fuel economy research. Or a new marketing team.
“I am absolutely thrilled,” Peters wrote in an e-mail Wednesday night. “It’s a victory for Civic Hybrid owners and consumers everywhere! Sometimes big justice comes in small packages.”
Honda has already announced they plan on appealing. The appeal process goes through a Superior Court where the defendant is allowed legal representation, meaning Honda can bring in their fancy-suit lawyers to fight on their behalf. This removes one of the key advantages of small claims court for individuals like Peters. Is she worried?
“I’m confident that we will be able to put on an even stronger case this time.” Ms. Peters wrote.
Being a former lawyer probably doesn’t hurt.
How to Sue an Auto Manufacturer (and Win)
Heather Peters is confident that others can follow her lead and sue automotive manufacturers if they make false claims or fail to fix obvious defects. She even has a website which is a helpful resource for those looking for more information.
“I want them to know they can file in Small Claims Court and that it is not so scary,” Peters said.
Want to take it a step further? Over at jalopnik.com, Ben Popken wrote a great piece outlining the steps you need to take to sue an automaker in small claims court and win using the Peters case as an example.
A New Era of Litigation?
Some lawyers say that depending on the result, Peters might inspire a whole new litigation strategy for the average consumer taking on the auto industry. Working together but filing lawsuits independently, consumers could force companies to go one on one with individual plaintiffs all over the country.
“If I prevail and get $10,000, they have 200,000 of these cars out there. That’s a potential payout of $2 billion.” she said.