California Woman's small claims victory resonates Small claims court win was end run around class action process

By Linda Deutsch

AP Special Correspondent

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- Heather Peter's computer crashed under the onslaught of messages following her unique victory over Honda in small claims court -- a win the California woman is hoping will lead other consumers to reject a class action settlement over defective hybrid cars.

Peters, who was at the center of a whirlwind as she welcomed camera crews to her home, said she has received more than 500 Facebook messages and had 6,000 hits on her website following a court decision awarding her $9,867 and finding Honda misled her into thinking her Hybrid could get 50 miles per gallon. She said the 2006 model, which she still owns, gets about 30 mpg.

Peters' win in small claims court was a unique end run around the class action process and set the stage for others to follow suit. She sees her victory as benefiting not just Honda owners but all consumers.

"To me this is really about the decline in customer service in America and how we have rolled over and accepted it for too long," she said. "People are mad as hell and they're not going to take it."

Class action lawsuits typically give small settlements to all members of the class. In the Honda suit, the company has offered $100 to $200 to each owner of an under -performing hybrid along with a $1,000 coupon to some toward purchase of a new car.

Peters, a former lawyer, said she is renewing her legal license after a 10-year lapse so she can consult with other Honda owners She said she is also posting all the paperwork from her small claims suit online as a guide for others contemplating such suits.

There appear to be many of them across the country, with Peters sharing dozens of e-mails sent to her by Honda owners who are opting out of the class action and filing their own suits.

But Professor Laurie Levenson of Loyola University Law School said Honda may have suffered something much worse than a possible flood of small claims actions.

"The worst part for Honda is they've been branded as committing fraud," she said. "That's not good for sales. It's a P.R. disaster and sometimes that costs more than the judgment."

One Honda owner in Texas was among those taking action.

"I have already sent in my letter opting out of the class action," said Darrell Stevens of Houston, Tex. who said in a phone interview that he has already filed his small claims action against Honda.

"The reason I'm doing this is it's just not fair what they're offering." he said. "I'm going to do what Ms. Peters did and present figures in court. I have no value left in the car. As soon as Ms. Peters won, there's no resale value for the car."

He said his hybrid gets 30 to 32 miles per gallon.

Honda said it will appeal Peters' judgment. She said she's confident she will win. She said more witnesses have been volunteering to help her, including a whistle blower from within Honda.

A legal expert sees Peters as in the vanguard of a consumer revolution on line

"What's new about this case is social networking," said Professor Howard Erickson of Fordham University Law School in New York.

"This is an example of how a revolutionary movement gets started," he said. "This is one individual fighting the powers that be and spreading the. Her website Don' became a rallying point for dissatisfied Honda hybrid owners.

She has now decided to renew her legal license after a 10-year lapse in order to consult with other Honda owners on their legal actions.

Los Angeles Superior Court Commissioner Douglas Carnahan ruled Wednesday that the automaker misled Peters about the potential fuel economy of her hybrid car and awarded her $9,867, close to the maximum allowed by law.

"At a bare minimum Honda was aware that by the time Peters bought her car there were problems with its living up to its advertised mileage," Carnahan wrote in the judgment. He harshly criticized the company for making false promises it could not deliver.

Aaron Jacoby, a class action lawyer in Los Angeles, said Peters definitely put a new twist on small claims court. But he felt few people would have her dedication and the time to pursue a similar case.

"I just don't think it's going to take off," he said. "There are a lot of class action cases out there. It would be hard to make a dent."

Richard Cupp, a Pepperdine University professor who had predicted Peters' victory, said others will likely be inspired to follow her example.

"I remember her saying at the beginning that she wanted to start a small claims flash mob," he said. "And I think that's what she did."

A judge in San Diego County is due to rule in March on whether to approve Honda's class-action settlement. Members of the class have until Feb. 11 to accept or decline the deal.

Late Thursday evening, Honda issued a lengthy statement insisting that the Honda Civic Hybrid has the capability to achieve 50 miles per gallon or more "in real world driving conditions."

The statement by Honda spokesman Chris Martin also attached numerous letters of commendation from satisfied Honda customers.

"American Honda believes that the judgment in this case is a radical and unprecedented departure from California and federal law... we intend to vigorously appeal this decision."

Honda defended the claims made in their advertising, which they say was accurate when the vehicles were sold and remains accurate today.

Published: Mon, Feb 6, 2012