Torrance, Calif. 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, where American Honda Motor Co. has its West Coast headquarters. As her 2006 vehicle’s battery deteriorated over time, it barely got 30 mpg, she said.
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.”
Peters never contacted Honda to complain or express any concern about her vehicle’s fuel economy until she sent a letter in late November 2011 and then filed her suit shortly thereafter, Honda said in a statement Tuesday.
“Once the suit was filed, Honda immediately offered to inspect her vehicle and work with her on the findings, but those offers were rejected,” the company said in the statement.
“The window sticker that was attached to her vehicle (as required by federal law) clearly indicated that her mileage would vary depending on driving conditions, options, vehicle condition and other factors,” the statement said.
But if Peters wins, and 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 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.