ASSOCIATED PRESS Enlarge
LOS ANGELES -- A judge has overturned a nearly $10,000 small claims judgment against American Honda Motor Co. that had been won by a car owner who said the automaker misrepresented that her hybrid Civic could get 50 miles per gallon.
A court commissioner had awarded of $9,867 to Heather Peters. Superior Court Judge Dudley W. Gray II ruled Tuesday on Honda's appeal. The ruling was released Wednesday.
Ms. Peters had opted out of a class-action settlement giving some 200,000 owners between $100 and $200 each, plus a rebate if they buy a new Honda. She elected instead to sue the automaker on her own.
Ms. Peters, a lawyer, urged Honda owners to take the small-claims route as she did. Her initial success led some 1,700 hybrid owners to follow suit. The ruling by Judge Gray will not have a direct effect on any of those other cases. But a legal observer said it could pose a challenge to those pursuing small claims actions.
"I think it will make it harder for them to fight their case on an individual basis," said Aaron Jacoby, a class-action lawyer in Los Angeles not involved in the Honda case. The ruling is "not binding on another court, but it certainly is persuasive," he added.
Ms. Peters said she was disappointed but glad she had brought awareness about Honda. "They used to go the extra mile in customer service, now they go the extra mile fighting customers in court," she said in a statement on her Web site, dontsettlewithhonda.org.
Honda said in a statement that it was pleased with the ruling. "We are never satisfied when a customer is anything less than satisfied with one of our products, and the company does not relish the necessity to defend the truth in opposition to any of our customers," the statement said.
Judge Gray's ruling found, among other issues, that while Ms. Peters had standing to bring the case in state court, federal regulations govern fuel economy ratings posted on vehicles and related advertising claims. The ruling also said most owners of that type of car achieve fuel economy close to federal Environmental Protection Agency estimates.
In addition, the judge said EPA miles per gallon ratings are for comparison among vehicles and do not account for various factors that can affect mileage, such as the condition of the car or the length of the trip.
Ms. Peters argued that Honda knew it had problems with the hybrid cars but continued to advertise them as an alternative to high gas prices and a way to help the environment.
But Judge Gray said the automaker's advertising slogans "are not specific promises of anything."
Ms. Peters took her case to small claims court in January, saying her 2006 Civic was expected to get 50 mpg but barely got 30 mpg. She said she would not have bought the car if its mileage was advertised, and her purpose for taking Honda head on was to hold the automaker accountable for false advertising.
Her suit marked a unique end run around the class-action process that she said offered too little to Honda owners and too much to lawyers. Some analysts argue that consumers are fairly warned when they buy a car that their mileage may vary.