• Feb 9th 2012 at 2:30PM
  • 7
Heather Peters' success in small claims court has allow... Heather Peters' success in small claims court has allowed for other Civic Hybrid owners to receive compensation (AP).
Since an improbable victory over Honda last week in a California small-claims court, a woman who sued over the disappointing fuel economy on her Civic hybrid says she has fielded hundreds of inquiries from disgruntled owners asking how they can follow in her footsteps.

Heather Peters says she has been happy to answer questions, and she's curious to see how many file small-claims court cases of their own. She's not the only one.

Automakers, legal experts and consumer-rights advocates are keeping an eye on what happens in the aftermath of her victory. Every car company today must advertise fuel economy to comply with regulation. But many--Ford, Hyundai, Chevy, Toyota and Honda, for example-- regularly trumpet fuel economy ratings in an attempt to convey quality and innovation, as well as appeal to pocketbooks when gas prices spike. They'll all have a clearer idea of what they are facing from disappointed consumers and judges soon.

Civic hybrid owners from across the United States have until Saturday to follow Peters' path and opt out of a class-action lawsuit against American Honda Motor Co. Should enough of them do so, some experts believe her case could alter the way Honda handles future claims.

"At least temporarily, it's going to make a difference in how Honda deals with hybrid cases and false advertising," said David J. Farrell, an attorney who specializes in consumer rights and California's lemon laws.

The two lawsuits cover the same ground: Civic hybrids that got lower-than-advertised fuel economy and diminished further after a software upgrade for the car's battery. But rather than remain in the class-action, Peters opted out and handled her own case in small-claims court.

A commissioner in Los Angeles Superior Court awarded her $9,867.19 in damages last week. By contrast, plaintiffs in the class-action, Lockabey v. American Honda Motor Co., stand to gain $200 and a coupon off future Honda purchases. Initially hesitant about opting out of the class-action and pursuing an individual case, some Civic owners are emboldened by the judgment in Peters' case.

"The $100 I'd get amounts to a week's worth of gas," said John Lundy, who says he never got more than 37 miles per gallon from his '06 Civic hybrid instead of the 50 mpg on the window sticker. "When you consider the mpg I got, the car should have been priced accordingly. That's where I feel I've been wronged."

Opting out of class action

He has opted out of the class-action lawsuit and intends to follow Peters' lead and file a small-claims court suit in Orange County, Calif.

Honda intends to appeal the decision in the Peters case. In a written statement, the automaker said it believed the court made a "radical" departure from precedent and erred by imposing requirements more stringent than Environmental Protection Agency's mileage estimates on the vehicle.

"A Honda advertisement that accurately referenced EPA mileage estimates truthfully stated that a driver can get "up to 50 mpg" and carefully noted that the mileage will vary is not misleading," the company's statement said.

Honda declined comment on the Lockabey class action, because the litigation is ongoing.

Peters contends her 2006 Civic hybrid got far below the advertised 50 miles per gallon. At its peak, she said her car received 42 mpg on the highway. Critical in her case was demonstrating her fuel efficiency deteriorated to less than 30 mpg following the software update.

In a 26-page judgment handed down in Los Angeles Superior Court, commissioner Douglas J. Carnahan did not dispute that the vehicle is capable of reaching 50 mph, but concluded the fact that it did not in Peters' vehicle amounted to "negligent misrepresentation."

Consumer Reports disappointed in fuel economy ratings too

Consumer Reports, the nonprofit organization that examines automobiles and other products, tested the same '06 Civic hybrid model shortly after it was introduced and emerged "disappointed" with the results. The magazine reported it managed 37 mpg overall and 26 mpg in the city with the model.

Other owners shared similar stories. Greg Yi, another California resident, said he averaged 37 to 42 mpg before the battery software update and 28.6 mpg over 2,000 miles afterward. Although disappointed in the early mileage, he did not consider a lawsuit until after the software update.

"That was the stab in the heart," said Yi, who is individually suing Honda. "It may have extended the battery life, but it came at the expense of the gas mileage. They just tried to blame me. The dealer told me I needed to change the tires."

Last year, sales of the model dipped 37.1 percent from 2010, falling from 7,336 to 4,703, according to sales figures from Autodata Corp.

All U.S. customers who bought Civic hybrids in that six-year span are considered members of the Lockabey class action unless they opt out. The number of owners opting out will not be known until after the deadline passes, said Alan Mansfield, one of the attorneys representing plaintiffs in the case.

Attention is being paid to this case because there are other vehicles receiving complaints and criticism about not reaching advertised fuel economy. Some customers, media outlets have cited Hyundai Elantra, for example, for falling short of 40 mpg highway mileage. Automakers are keen to advertise the highest possible fuel economy they think they can achieve, but court cases may move companies to hedge lower in their ads.

The class-action combines similar cases from around the country and represents all eligible U.S. owners. It will be adjudicated in a San Diego County Court, where Judge Timothy B. Taylor is expected to approve the settlement in a hearing scheduled for March 16.

That outcome is not necessarily a good one for Honda owners, Farrell believes.

"For minor things that there's not really a dollar value attached to, that's OK for a class action," said Farrell, who is not representing parties associated with either case. "But in a situation like this, evidenced by this lady that won all this money, they're giving up substantial damages for nothing or very little."

Owners interested in opting out of the lawsuit must send a notice to the settlement administrator with a postmark no later than Saturday, and can get more information by calling the 1 (877) 465-4797. More information is available at hchsettlement.com.

No matter what happens in the appeal of the Peters case and the outcome of the Lockabey one, Jamie Court, president of Consumer Watchdog, an advocacy organization that has scrutinized the miles-per-gallon claims of automakers, says their impacts have already resonated.

"The car companies clearly have to do more to be more transparent and be less boasting," he said. "This is a victory for consumers and for people who want honesty in advertising."

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    • 1 Second Ago
      Richard Goebel
      • 3 Years Ago
      Good luck, Heather--maybe you should buy American next time.
        • 3 Years Ago
        @Richard Goebel
        There is no such thing as an "American" car anymore, as anyone who can read has known for years. Good luck, Goebel.
          • 3 Years Ago
          I agree with that. What's an American car these days? If you live in the Northeast or Midwest, work a union job and insist on buying only American products would you choose a Pontiac Vibe (Toyota) over a Mazda Tribute (Ford) because Pontiac is a domestic nameplate or would you choose the Mazda Tribute because the whole car is Ford under the Mazda nameplates? Many domestic vehicles are built in Canada and Mexico while many Japanese, Korean and German vehicles are built right here in the US. Regardless of where any of these vehicles were built can any of us achieve the fuel economy the EPA says our vehicles are supposed to? While the EPA tests on treadmills with gas without ethanol the fact that most gas pumps are 10% ethanol none of us will get our money's worth from our gas. Auto magazines such as Consumer Reports, Consumer Guide and Edmunds test vehicles by driving them in the real world with the same gas we have to put into our vehicles. Unlike the EPA treadmills real world testing includes wind resistance, inclines, weight of the vehicle, passengers and cargo. The EPA also insists the Hyundai Elantra gets 40 MPG when the magazines don't conclude that and the Chevy Equinox and GMC Terrain can get 32 MPG and can go 600 miles on a tank of gas when none of the magazines have come remotely close. With ethanol in gasoline a Honda Civic Hybrid can expect 25 MPG in the city and 36 MPG on the highway while a regular Honda Civic can only expect 17 MPG in the city and 27 MPG on the highway. Without ethanol in the gas I can definitely expect better than that.
      • 3 Years Ago
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      • 3 Years Ago
      I think Honda should have to have the Civic hybrid rerun the standard EPA test (after the patch they made that lengthened battery life but hurt the fuel economy), figure out how much extra gas it needs per mile, then refund owners for the extra gas they will need (based on how much they drove last year, and current fuel prices) for say, the next five years.
      • 3 Years Ago
      If the EPA would allow us to have gas without ethanol the vehicles may actually achieve the fuel economy the EPA says they get. Who requires the automakers to advertise the highway figures in their ads? GM ads have claimed for the last three years the Equinox and Terrain get 32 MPG and go 600 miles on a single tank of gas. I would love to have somebody reply to me that they actually achieved 600 miles from a single tank of gas with an Equinox or Terrain. Many other SUV's are following suit by claiming they get 32 MPG on the highway. On a treadmill test it may be possible for hybrids to get more miles per gallon going to the store and back than driving on the interstate but Consumer Reports has not found any vehicles that use less gas locally although the Chevy Volt may possibly do so because of being plugged in between errands and not so much state to state. Without plugging it in or if living in an apartment or condo the Volt would get the same fuel economy as a Toyota Matrix wagon which would cause the $40,000+ price tag to not make any sense. Ford Escape Hybrid claimed to get 36 MPG locally and 31 MPG on the highway but real world observations showed 24 MPG locally and 27 MPG on the highway which is easier to believe. The Prius was advertised as getting 60/51 and then 48/45 as of the 2008 changes but 33/46 is more realistic. The original first generation Honda Insight without A/C advertised 66/61 but 36/51 is more realistic. As long as there's ethanol in gasoline hardly anybody is going to literally achieve the fuel economy the EPA Monroney stickers claim the vehicles get, especially vehicles older than 2010.
      • 3 Years Ago
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