We have waited a while for a ruling in a case that might draw a number of consumers to small claims courts. So, while the ruling is far from final, it’s worth reporting.
A California woman took the American Honda Motor Company to small claims court, charging that the company had inflated the mileage that owners of the Civic Hybrid could expect. Heather Peters said that when she bought her 2006 Civic, ads had convinced her she would be getting around 50 mpg; she ended up getting around 30.
She wasn’t alone. A number of the roughly 200,000 Civic owners also were upset enough to threaten legal action. Honda urged them to join a class-action case to settle the thousands of grievances in essentially one large court proceeding. Each member of the class would receive $100-200 plus a $1,000 credit toward the purchase of another Honda. The plaintiffs’ lawyers would earn a whopping $8.4 million.
Peters — a lawyer not currently practicing — said, “No, thanks,” and headed for small claims court. On Wednesday, a judge ruled in her favor and awarded her $9,867, just under the $10,000 maximum allowed in small claims awards in California. Peters has set up a website, www.dontsettlewithhonda.org, urging others to avoid the small settlement through class action and take Honda to small claims courts in their home states.
Now, the California case does not mean a slam dunk for Civic owners here looking to make a quick $9,800 (especially since Maine law limits small claims awards to $6,000). Honda plans to appeal, saying claims that the Civic might get “up to 50 mpg” were not misleading, especially since it noted that mileage can vary. In a statement, Honda called the ruling “a radical and unprecedented departure from California and federal law.”
Trying your own case might seem tempting, but we’re not endorsing the approach on a wholesale basis. A consumer has to convince a judge that he or she has been wronged, and that judge might rule differently than in Peters’ case.
The party you’re suing can bring lawyers into small claims court in some but not all states. Peters represented herself as a consumer, not as a lawyer; when Honda sent its lawyers to the small claims courtroom, the judge sent them packing. In Maine, lawyers may represent either side.
A small claims case in Maine goes first to mediation. If there’s no mediated agreement, the case goes to District Court. While rules of evidence apply, the court tries to provide “a simple, speedy and informal court procedure for the resolution of small claims.” Decisions may be appealed to the Superior Court; if the original ruling is overturned, the case could be sent back to District Court to begin again.
The class action is still before the court in California. The judge is expected to rule in mid-March, and there has been speculation he may rule that Honda’s offer is not enough. In the meantime, more than one Civic owner has been quoted as saying the current offer is less than adequate.
Don’t be surprised if more of these cases end up in small claims courts across the country. If more rulings go in consumers’ favor, the sum total could cut into the company’s coffers and the lawyers’ anticipated payday. Peters plans to renew her law license and help others sue Honda.
For forms and information about small claims in Maine, you can visit the Maine government website at www.maine.gov and search for “small claims,” or visit Pine Tree Legal’s website, http://www.ptla.org/court-forms.
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