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Honda wins appeal of small-claims hybrid ruling

Reed Saxon / AP

Sorry, Heather. A Los Angeles court overturned a ruling in favor of Heather Peters, who says her 2006 Honda Civic Hybrid, rear, never achieved the 50 mpg Honda claimed in its advertising.

A California Superior Court Judge has reversed the high-profile verdict in a small claims case filed by a woman who claimed her Honda Civic Hybrid delivered significantly worse than the maker’s advertising claimed it would.

The original case, filed by Heather Peters, won a judgment of nearly $10,000 to cover her increased fuel bills and reduced trade-in value. Peters had decided to fight Honda on her own in Small Claims Court rather than participating in a class action settlement she argued would not adequately compensate owners of 2006 to 2008 Civic Hybrids.

“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,” said a statement from American Honda Motor Co.

But the maker also said it “is pleased with the Court’s decision which affirms that Honda was truthful in its advertising of the fuel economy potential of the 2006 Honda Civic Hybrid. We are thankful for the support we received from the many satisfied Civic Hybrid owners who expressed their support throughout the legal process.”

Whether it was truthful is likely to continue to be debated, however, despite Honda’s victory in the latest case – and 16 of 17 other small claims suits it has successfully defended in recent months.

The maker argued that it was acting properly when it claimed in advertising and other promotional material that the 2006 to 2008 Civic Hybrid would get 50 mpg.  That number was based on EPA testing and was used in the vehicle’s so-called “Munroney” window sticker, as well.  In the original court hearings earlier this year, a Honda representative told the court that the maker was required to use EPA data when promoting the mileage of its products.

That position was reflected in the ruling by Superior Court Judge Dudley W. Gray II, who wrote that, “Federal regulations control the fuel economy ratings posted on vehicles and advertising claims related to those fuel economy ratings.”

In fact, EPA officials have told TheDetroitBureau.com that a maker can advertise any mileage number it believes is accurate up to the figures achieved in government mileage tests.  But makers traditionally use the maximum figure even when they are aware such tests might be overly optimistic. In fact, the EPA subsequently revised its test procedures to acknowledge the fact that most hybrids delivered lower fuel economy in real-world use.

In fact, Honda last month received approval by yet another California court to move ahead with a settlement in a class action case that had also challenged its mileage estimates. That settlement will provide owners with $100 to $200 in cash along with a discount coupon for another Honda vehicle.

Critics – including Peters – felt the settlement worked largely in favor of Honda as it effectively helped drive disgruntled Civic Hybrid owners back into showrooms.

The Los Angeles housewife – who previously served as a corporate lawyer and revived her license before the appeal – tried to put a good spin on her latest setback.

“Of course I’m disappointed,” said Peters, “but I’m still glad that I raised awareness that Honda is no longer the great brand that it used to be. They used to go the extra mile in customer service, now they go the extra mile fighting customers in court.”

Peters had chosen to try her initial case in Small Claims Court because it restricts both sides, barring the use of lawyers, for one thing.  She had encouraged other disgruntled Honda owners to opt out of the class action settlement and pursue their own cases, as well.  But with her initial victory overturned, Honda has now lost only one of 18 suits that have taken that route.

Under California law, Peters has no further appeals option on a small claims verdict.