What are you going to do, sue? Good luck.

This week's Superior Court verdict suggests there's little to no recourse for consumers.

As Autoblog readers likely have already learned, a Superior Court judge in California has tossed out a judgment issued by a small claims court earlier this year awarding nearly $10,000 to Honda Civic Hybrid owner Heather Peters. She had taken the Japanese maker to court claiming it used misleading advertising promising the sedan would get significantly better mileage than proved true in the real world.

In overruling the lower court, Superior Court Judge Dudley W. Gray II wrote that, "Federal regulations control the fuel economy ratings posted on vehicles and advertising claims related to those fuel economy ratings."

Well, um, no. That was my understanding, too, until I had the chance to pursue the matter with the EPA a couple years back. In fact, I was told, the law simply sets an upper limit. If the tests determine a new model gets 50 mpg – as with Peters' Civic Hybrid – that's the most a maker can advertise or use on the Monroney window sticker. But should a manufacturer like Honda realize through its own tests that the vehicle's real-world mileage might be noticeably less they can mark it down to whatever they think is valid.

Of course, who would do that? With mileage now one of the top things on the consumer's shopping list, who can blame a manufacturer for wanting to put the prettiest lipstick on a gas hog. And this week's Superior Court verdict suggests there's little to no recourse for consumers who only discover that fact after they've given it a big smooch.

Paul EisensteinPaul A. Eisenstein is Publisher of TheDetroitBureau.com and a 30-year veteran of the automotive beat. His editorials bring his unique perspective and deep understanding of the auto world to Autoblog readers on a regular basis.

Imagine if everyone frustrated with the mileage of their vehicle took the maker to small claims.

Now, one can also sympathize with Honda. The maker has already had to battle 18 small claims lawsuits in California regarding the under-performing Civic Hybrid. The process is designed to level the playing field; attorneys are barred and small claims judges have a surprising amount of leeway in making their decisions. Imagine if everyone frustrated with the mileage of their vehicle took the maker to small claims. It would see corporate managers spending much of their work week testifying rather than trying to figure out how to actually deliver the fuel economy they tout.

The alternative for an owner is to go into a conventional courtroom where the playing field typically tilts in favor of the corporation because of the legal firepower it can deliver. That's why so many significant automotive lawsuits have, in recent years, turned to the class action process. It lets a wide field of plaintiffs pool their resources to even things back out.

Manufacturers love to rail about class action lawsuits and plaintiffs' attorneys. But, in reality, they often make out far better by going this route when there's a real chance the company is in trouble. Consider the settlement just recently approved by another California judge. Same basic complaint: Honda overstated the mileage of its early Civic Hybrids, adding up to far higher fuel bills and lower trade-in values. Forget the argument that only the EPA controls the mileage numbers used in advertising. In this case, Honda couldn't do more to convince the court to accept a settlement.

Perhaps nothing has been more prone to enhancement than horsepower and 0-to-60 times.

That settlement earned owners between $100 and $200 in cash and discount coupons for the purchase of another Honda. That's become a favorite way of settling class action cases in recent years because it gets lots of otherwise pissed-off customers back into your stores.

Of course, the sweetener is the millions – in some cases, tens, even $100s of millions that those plaintiff attorneys pocket as fees. Might we wonder how many new hybrids they will purchase with their part of the settlement?

Of course, fuel economy ratings aren't the only numbers the industry has manipulated over the years. Perhaps nothing has been more prone, historically, to, ahem, enhancement, than performance figures, especially when it comes to horsepower and 0-to-60 times.

If actual mileage doesn't pan out for consumers, who cares. What are they going to do, sue?

Intriguingly, more and more makers these days decline to even provide acceleration numbers and they take pains to ensure that they can back their hp claims, usually through certification by organizations such as the Society of Automotive Engineers.

No wonder. There have been plenty of lawsuits here, as well. Recall Mazda had to come up with a settlement when it overstated the output of its RX-8 a few years back. And it isn't alone.

One difference is that when a manufacturers muffs it here there's no EPA it can point to and insist it is shielded by law.

The good news is that the EPA regularly tracks how its mileage ratings compare with real-world figures and the agency has adjusted its testing procedures on several occasions. It was particularly aggressive when it came to hybrid ratings a few years back because, yes, the numbers were way overstated.

Protecting the industry, as Judge Gray has done, may only further encourage some makers to tweak vehicles specifically to maximize the way they perform in the EPA tests. If that doesn't pan out for consumers, well, who cares. What are they going to do, sue?

There are probably some good reasons for the courts to try to avoid an endless flood of small claims cases, but if this week's verdict simply provides a shield for the industry then consumers everywhere will prove to be the losers.

Paul EisensteinPaul A. Eisenstein is Publisher of TheDetroitBureau.com and a 30-year veteran of the automotive beat. His editorials bring his unique perspective and deep understanding of the auto world to Autoblog readers on a regular basis.

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    • 1 Second Ago
      • 3 Years Ago
      I've only owned Toyotas and I'm siding with Honda on this one. On pretty much every advertisement out there, it states that it's EPA estimated. I do own a Toyota hybrid and it's getting 51 MPG, according to the car's computer. But, some weeks it's 46 MPG depending on weather, how I'm driving, tire pressure, etc. The same can be said about laptop batteries. Actual battery life will be less than advertised. This lady just gives hybrid drivers a bad name.
        • 3 Years Ago
        Love our Toyotas ... Hubby was going to get the Prius, but cost and size gave way to a manual Corolla - has been getting 40MPG on the non-hybrid. Over 165K miles on it since 2007 and minimal maintenance. When the kids are grown, maybe the Prius - have always wanted one.
      • 3 Years Ago
      Headline on AOL: Woman's alarming battle against Toyota! The artclle then goes on to bash Honda again, this is old news and in case you missed it... SHE LOST!
      • 3 Years Ago
      Huffington Post. If you cannot get the story correct then get out of the business. All you are doing is screwing up. YOU need to print a retraction and apologize to Toyota.
      • 3 Years Ago
      You gotta be an idiot to think you're getting what the window sticker says regardless of driving conditions and driving habits. But, law suits that make it to the media usually involve at least one idiot.
      • 3 Years Ago
      Another example of the fine journalism by the Huff Post. Seriously- the headline reads Toyota - the article is all about Honda. Can't we do better than that? Really?
      • 3 Years Ago
      "What are you going to do, sue? Good Luck..." This is absolutely right on and the manufacturers know it. Audi has recently launched a campaign against consumers who choose to modify the performance of their vehicles. It's basically voiding powertrain warranty coverage if certain parts or ECU code has been modified. Is it justified? Sure. Is it in violation of MMWA? Possibly - it depends on the parts involved. However, the blanket voiding is the concerning thing. Any aftermarket intakes, exhausts, ECU coding, etc. automatically flags you for a voided powertrain warranty. Period. If you have an intake and your rear differential seal is leaking it doesn't matter. And the dealer has little to no power or discretion in the matter. Audi knows that most consumers won't begin a long, arduous legal battle with one of the largest vehicle manufacturers in the world because of the out-dated nature and vagueness of the MMWA. This case with Honda is particularly troubling because the courts seem to be positioning themselves in line with the manufacturers giving the consumer no recourse. SEMA needs to step to the plate and get a bill on Congress' desks that is updated, includes modern common vehicle modifications, and addresses the blanket warranty voiding issue. No matter what you have done to your car - if a modification CLEARLY didn't cause a failure it is still not right to blanket void warranties!!
      • 3 Years Ago
      Honda is not spelled the same as Toyota - get your headline fixed.
      • 3 Years Ago
      She deserved to lose. If the EPA tests produced wrong results, sue them, not Honda. Honda's design was bad. Their 'fix' wasn't that great, either. However, that doesn't mean she suffered $10k of "damages." The class action lawsuit is the correct tool for this job. However, the award of $100 or $200 is too low IMO. It should be $500 or $1000 off another Honda.
        • 3 Years Ago
        Here's the court document, that makes it clear that Honda was backed up by the EPA - the mpg figures were accurate, that a similar car could do what Honda said it would do when tested for the court, and that the plaintiff could produce no evidence because she wouldn't allow her own car to be independently tested. http://cbsla.files.wordpress.com/2012/05/hondadecisionscan.pdf
        • 3 Years Ago
        class action lawsuits are never the correct tool for any job, other than making lawyers rich. people involved get 100 bucks and a gift card, and the lawyers make hundreds of millions
      • 3 Years Ago
      Your 15 minutes of fame are up Heather, now go crawl back under the rock you came from. What a loser.
      New Shel
      • 3 Years Ago
      One more time: Honda changed the programming of their hybrids because the settings that allowed the claimed MPG were destroying the batteries. In an effort to save money, they shafted the owners. Go ahead and vote this down, It's true. I have no idea what's wrong with the people on this site. They seem allergic to the truth.
      • 3 Years Ago
      In the Next Great American Revolution, we borrow the Guillotines from France (they saved them, just in case) and the first to Get It will be Bankers, Investors, Politicians, and Corporate Extortionists. Let the blood flow all over the nation. If Steve Jobs was still alive, his exploitation of child slave labor would put him (and his billions in profit) at the front of the line.
      • 3 Years Ago
      Your AOL headline states that the suit was against Toyota rather than Honda. Please correct.
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