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Hybrid Honda owner loses appeal of small-claims court victory: Update

May 9, 2012
Heather Peters Hybrid Honda
Heather Peters Hybrid Honda

Heather Peters, the attorney who sued Honda in California small-claims court over what she called the disappointing mileage in her 2006 Honda Civic Hybrid, had her $9,687 award thrown out today by a Los Angeles County judge, who found that most owners get close to the fuel economy the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates on the window sticker. Peters says she's disappointed, but that Honda lost the public relations battle even if it won the case.

Peters was among thousands of other Civic Hybrid owners had complained following a 2010 software upgrade to their cars by Honda that many said dramatically lowered their mileage. When Honda and the owners reached a class-action settlement that gives owners between $100 and $200, Peters opted out and brought her case to small-claims court, suggesting a new course of attack for people who believe they've been wronged by large corporations.

Peters move encouraged some 1,700 other owners to try the same route, and her win in February emboldened critics of the class-action settlement. But Honda appealed the ruling, and argued in state court that Peters' driving style, not Honda's software, was at fault. Peters presented evidence that after the software upgrade, her car never achieved more than 30 mpg, compared with the 50 mpg that Honda rated the car as capable of getting. A revamp of federal fuel economy rules later lowered the Civic Hybrid's official rating to 42 mpg.

The ruling by Superior Court Judge Dudley W. Gray found that Honda had complied with federal regulations governing how automakers advertise fuel economy. Honda said the company "does not relish the necessity to defend the truth in opposition to any of our customers," adding:

However, it is important to note that, since January of this year, seventeen similar small claims cases involving Civic Hybrid owners have been heard in courts across the country and Honda has now prevailed in sixteen, based on facts and the law.

For her part, Peters said Honda's win did not absolve it of the problems she experience:

"It's a sad day when regulations designed to protect consumers are used against them. I'm certain that the EPA and FTC never intended to shield Honda from liability for advertising claims that a court of law determined to be false."

In a final bit of grief, Peters' loss means she will have to pay Honda's court costs of $75.