Why Heather Peters took on Honda and won

Posted by Shane McGlaun

People all around the country came down hard on both sides of a recent lawsuit which pitched California resident Heather Peters against auto giant Honda.

The crux of the suit, which was heard in small claims court in Los Angeles, was that Honda misled Peters and other owners of the 2006 Civic hybrid when it came to the fuel economy.

As we previously reported, Honda loudly trumpeted the fact that the car was good for up to 50 miles per gallon. However, Peters and other owners of the vehicle never managed to achieve the promised fuel economy.

The poor fuel economy of the Honda Civic hybrid led to one class-action suit that should settle this year  - with potential payouts totaling only a few hundred dollars per claimant.

Peters, on the other hand, chose not to be part of the class-action group and decided to try her hand in small claims court. Why? Attorneys are not allowed in small claims court, which meant Honda could not bring its full legal team to bear against Peters. It is worth noting that Peters is a former attorney,  with a license which lapsed nearly a decade ago.

We've already talked about the original case and the fact that the Commissioner presiding over the small claims court ruled in Peters' favor, awarding her a cool $9,867 in damages. We also know that Honda intends to appeal the decision and on appeal, it will be allowed to bring its legal team in for what will undoubtedly be a protracted battle. However, the real question remains: who is right, Peters or Honda?

Honda is correct in that it had nothing to do with coming up with the 50 mile per gallon number for its  Civic hybrid, as the figure was actually the mileage rating granted by the EPA.

Therefore, Honda was legally obligated to use the 50 MPG statistic on window stickers placed on the vehicle. The catch, and what Peters argued successfully in court? Honda was not obligated in any way to use that same 50 mile per gallon number in its marketing literature, which the auto manufacturer did prolifically.

Peters argued that Honda knew the vehicle was unable to achieve the EPA mandated fuel economy guidelines in real-world situations. As such, the core of this case is whether Honda knowingly misled consumers who purchased the Civic hybrid by continuing to use the EPA 50 miles per gallon number - despite the fact it knew that mileage was unattainable.

I would argue that, considering Honda had issued a software update to fix problems with the fuel economy, it obviously knew mileage was an issue. However, the corporation continued to advertise a higher than achievable mileage rating for the car.

Personally, I think we need modifications to the EPA guidelines for testing fuel economy ASAP. While automakers are obligated to display those numbers on window stickers, they need to be honest and up front with consumers and cite more realistic numbers in their marketing literature. Automakers do their own economy testing before the EPA even lays a hand on a vehicle for official rating, so they should be able to confirm if the EPA numbers are indeed realistic.

I think with the level of technology we have available today, we are clearly more than capable of devising an accurate economy test for the EPA to use that will actually show consumers what they can expect to achieve for fuel economy in the real world. 

So in this case, I believe that Peters is correct. Honda was not obligated by law to use the EPA's fuel economy ratings in its marketing literature and the addition of the words "up to" does not seem sufficient to me.

"Up to" does imply you may not see the actual number granted by the EPA, however, a 20 mile per gallon difference is quite significant and can't, in good faith, be covered with the verbiage "up to," at least in my opinion. As noted above, Honda is in the wrong here. However, I think Peters will have her hands full in appeals court when Honda rolls out a legal team paid more in a couple of days than many of us make in a month. What do you think?