Honda Owner's Win In Small Claims Court Could Start A Trend

Feb 2, 2012

What happens next now that Heather Peters has won her case? She's the California woman who took Honda to small claims court because her hybrid Civic wasn't getting as the 50 miles per gallon she'd been promised.

Well, she may never collect the $9,867 she was awarded. Honda has said it will appeal the decision — meaning, as we've said before, that the case will move to a higher court where Honda can bring in its high-priced attorneys (in California, lawyers aren't allowed to represent clients in small claims court).

But, as Los Angeles Times reporter Jerry Hirsch explained to All Things Considered co-host Melissa Block earlier this afternoon, Peters' strategy of taking a big corporation to small claims court rather than taking part in a class action suit "could catch on with other people who have complaints about big companies and their products. About a third of the states have rules where you're not allowed to bring an attorney into small claims court and that really evens the playing field."

Just the chance to drag a corporate Goliath into court may inspire other Davids. Hirsch says he knows of several Honda owners in California who may follow Peters' example.

There's also the possibility, Hirsch says, that down the road cases such as Peters' might force automakers to acknowledge that the Environmental Protection Agency's official vehicle mileage estimates don't always make sense. Los Angeles' traffic, he points out, is much different than other cities.'

Much more from his conversation with Melissa is due on today's All Things Considered. Click here to find an NPR station that broadcasts or streams the show.

So, how to follow Peters' example? Jalopnik.com offers a guide to "how you can sue an automaker in small claims court and win," with Peters as its source. It includes a link to key documents, a sample letter to send to the corporation you have a problem with, a map showing "maximum small claims dollar amounts by state" and this wonderful advice:

"Watch Several Episodes of Judge Judy (or similar): Seriously. The experience of going through small claims is pretty much exactly that, except the judges aren't as sassy. Watch a few of those and you will have a good idea of what to expect on your court day."

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A follow-up now on a story we told you about last month, a lawsuit against Honda over hybrid mileage. That suit was filed in an unusual venue, small claims court. Well, now, plaintiff Heather Peters has won her suit against the automaker. She's been awarded just under $10,000 in damages. Her claim? That her Civic Hybrid never got the 50 miles per gallon that Honda promised in its ads.

Jerry Hirsch has been following the case for the Los Angeles Times. Jerry, thanks for being with us.

JERRY HIRSCH: I'm glad to be here.

BLOCK: There was a class action settlement with Honda that the plaintiff Heather Peters refused to sign on to. She thought the payout to owners was too small. And now she's won a whole lot more in small claims court. What does she say?

HIRSCH: She is very happy. She's interested in what Honda's next move is. This is quite a chess game that's going on between Peters, Honda and the class action bar over the problems with the Civic Hybrid. But she's happy that she won. She's looking forward to the next step. And she thinks she's going to get a lot of support from other hybrid owners.

BLOCK: Well, let's talk about the next step. Honda has said it will appeal. And the next venue really could change things a lot, right?

HIRSCH: Yeah. This is a big change for her. This is - will go to Los Angeles Superior Court, and then all the things that happen in a regular courtroom get to happen. There's discovering a Honda can ask to see her car. They can try to see if there was some way that she was maintaining it incorrectly that might have caused the mileage to be less than advertised. There's depositions. They bring their attorneys in. She has to cite whether she wants to hire attorney or continue to represent herself. I believe she will represent herself.

It ups the stakes considerably. It's interesting that Honda would pursue this, because looking at a company that sells a million cars a year, this is a $10,000 damages award, but yet they must see this as a very important case that they're going to keep at it.

BLOCK: Mm. And one key thing. Next time, you mentioned, they can bring their lawyers in to appeals court. In small claims court, Honda couldn't be represented by its attorneys, right? And Heather Peters, representing herself, is a former attorney.

HIRSCH: Right. So she's pretty savvy about this stuff. This isn't the average Joe going in and taking on the big corporation. In California, companies are not allowed to be represented by attorneys in small claims lawsuits. That's also correct in, I think, about a third of the other states. The state laws vary. But what it's designed to do is to kind of even the odds for people to simplify the process and make it more digestible for the common man to take on a case like this.

BLOCK: Now, Heather Peters has also launched a Web campaign to get other owners of Civic Hybrids who were planning to settle with Honda in that class action settlement to do what she's done. Is that catching on, do you think?

HIRSCH: Well, she said she's been contacted prior to her win yesterday by more than 500 other Civic owners. Her website crashed last night. She had something like 6,000 visitors to the website. So we'll see what happens. I've personally met owners from Sacramento, in San Diego and other parts of Southern California who all say that if Heather won, they were going to try the same strategy. It presents an interesting problem for Honda, because all of sudden they could have this distributed litigation in small claims courts all over the state. It looks like it would be a big hassle for a big corporation, especially if it spread to other states where the laws were similar.

BLOCK: And conceivably other carmakers might be facing similar suits or no?

HIRSCH: It has implications for all sorts of consumer lawsuits that we now see wind up in class action litigation. People might decide, oh, if I go with the class action litigation, I'm going to get a coupon or $100. But if I go and do this on my own, I might get thousands of dollars in damages from the company.

BLOCK: Or I might get nothing.

HIRSCH: Litigation is always a gamble. You're going to win or you're going to lose. And you don't know what's going to happen until you go into it.

BLOCK: OK. Jerry Hirsch, automotive writer for the Los Angeles Times. Thanks so much.

HIRSCH: Thank you.



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