Nearly a week after her small claims court hearing against Honda, Heather Peters is still incredulous that she was able to level the playing field against an international auto corporation.
Her idea, to sue Honda in California small claims court where lawyers aren't allowed and trials are swift and conversational, is so mind-bogglingly simple that one could almost hear thousands of palms slapping foreheads when news of her lawsuit broke during the holidays.
Peters, a Los Angeles resident and former litigation lawyer, got the idea when she received a notice inviting her to be part of a class action lawsuit over the Honda Civic hybrid's unfulfilled mileage promises. The possible award per consumer, at $100 to $200, was "just totally unappealing," Peters said in an interview with The Huffington Post. Yet she added that her experience as a lawyer depleted her of "the interest or the inclination to go through a full-on litigation ... I mean, it goes on forever and you spend more money than it's worth -- and it's all a crapshoot."
Instead, Peters sued Honda in small claims court for the cost of the extra gas she's had to buy over the years, as well as the premium she paid over a non-hybrid Honda Civic. According to California small claims court law, that means she could collect up to $10,000 -- and depending on whether or not she's successful, she may have inspired what the Los Angeles Times called a "small-claims flash mob" for the approximately 500,000 Honda customers who could be affected by the pending class action suit.
In addition to her experience as an attorney, Peters also credited a failed 2004 run for California State Assembly for inspiring her to file the small claims lawsuit. "It really gave me a much deeper perspective about what ordinary people who don't have a legal background encounter in their daily lives," she said. That's the inspiration for her website DontSettleWithHonda.org, where Civic hybrid drivers can look up the small claims laws in their own states should they decide to opt out of the class action and represent themselves. "I just wanted to give them the benefit of my knowledge and let them know it doesn't have to be a big scary ordeal," explained Peters. "Small claims court is really a lot like what people see on television; they can stand up for their rights on their own two feet and not pay anyone to do it for them."
Peters admits that she "truly had no intention" of facing off against Honda's representatives in court. "I really truly thought when I wrote them a letter that they'd call me and we'd talk about it and it would be done."
In Honda's defense, her request seems rather audacious at first glance. Instead of settling for the $100 to $200 she stood to gain as part the class action lawsuit over the hybrid's disappointing mileage, Peters instead told Honda in a letter that she would either accept a car trade, a car buy-back or $7,500 -- at that time the maximum amount one could collect in California small claims court. Honda chose to take their chances in small claims court, where the appellate level allows for legal representation.
For the trial last Tuesday, Honda sent Neil Schmidt, a technical representative who explained how the "sticker" rate of 50 miles per gallon the company promised was possible could differ on account of variables like use of the air conditioner and driving in stop-and-go traffic, reports the Associated Press. To commuting Angelenos, those factors are an everyday scenario.
Peters was armed with her own story: her hybrid Civic cost $25,400 in 2006 when the regular Civic cost under $17,000, and she never reached more than 29 or 30 miles per gallon as a driver in Los Angeles. Recalling the day that she bought her car, Peters told HuffPost that if the salespeople had been honest about the chances of reaching 50 miles per gallon while driving in Los Angeles, she would have never bought a hybrid.
She also brought her own witness: Arnel Maala, Honda of Hollywood's shop foreman, to testify about how Honda's hybrid battery worsened after the company issued a software update in 2010 to prevent it from dying before the warranty-protected time. It's been documented that the software update decreased miles per gallon by about 25 percent by altering the way the hybrid battery works. After the software update, consumers including Peters noted that after years of lower-than-expected mileage performance, the Civic hybrid's miles per gallon rate was now truly indistinguishable from that of a regular Civic. Recollecting his testimony at trial, Peters said, "I had a mechanic from Honda come in and testify against his own employer that yes, it literally changes the way the car operates, and people do not get the same gas mileage."
Hours after the trial, Honda claimed in a statement that Peters had refused to work with the company and allow their expert to examine her car before the trial. She explained why in a response posted on her site: "I initially declined because I knew that he was just trying to delay my case beyond the February 11th deadline for other class members to opt out of the pending settlement."
Until she awaits her judgement, Peters is receiving hundreds of grateful and congratulatory emails from Honda customers who could be affected by the class action suit. "People just felt like they have a voice too, that someone finally stood up and said 'I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore,' " said Peters. "I've even stopped opening them for now, because I don't have the time!"