CONSUMER FORUM

Honda lawsuit ruling gives consumers pause

Posted May 13, 2012, at 12:13 p.m.

Heather Peters was just looking for a little truth. She got it last week in the form of a Superior Court judge’s ruling that didn’t go her way.

Peters, an attorney from California, was featured in this column earlier this year. She had gone to small claims court and charged that Honda, manufacturer of the hybrid Civic, had made exaggerated claims of her 2006 model’s fuel efficiency. In February, the judge in small claims court sided with Peters, awarding her $9,867, just under California’s $10,000 small claims limit.

Honda took the case to California Superior Court, unleashing its lawyers who, by California law, are barred from appearing in that state’s small claims courts. Peters was not practicing law at the time she filed her claim. Last Wednesday, a judge overturned the award and told Peters to pay Honda $75 in court costs.

Honda had tried to avoid that small claims case and a number of others, by owners who agreed with Peters that Honda’s cars did not live up to the automaker’s advertising. Under Federal Trade Commission rules, ads must be truthful and nondeceptive. Peters said instead of the 50 miles per gallon suggested by Honda, her vehicle achieved closer to 30 mpg.

Honda countered that its advertising claims are tied to the Environmental Protection Agency’s determination of vehicle fuel efficiency. The company said varying driving and weather conditions and use of air conditioning all affect fuel economy; we’re all familiar with the caveat, “Your actual mileage may vary.”

To make the complainers go away, Honda offered to include them in a class-action settlement; those with complaints about their Civics could get $100-$200 and $1,500 off another Honda vehicle while Honda’s attorneys raked in some $8.4 million in legal fees. Peters declined the offer and went the small claims route, urging other disgruntled Civic owners to do the same. Roughly 1,700 of them opted out of the class action and might try small claims court in their home states.

The Los Angeles Times reported that Honda has defended, or is still facing, 36 cases in small claims courts over its ad claims for the Civic. It has won 18 cases, including the overturned award last week, and faces trials in 17 others. According to the Times, Honda lost one case in Santa Barbara involving a 2003 Civic hybrid.

In his ruling last week, Judge Dudley Gray noted Peters’ reference in court to Honda’s advertising slogans in support of her claim of a broken promise by the company. The judge ruled that slogans such as “sipping fuel,” “amazingly little fuel” and “saves plenty of money on fuel” are “non-actionable sales puffery” and are not specific promises of anything.

In a statement following the ruling, Honda said it was, “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.” The statement went on: “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.”

Which brings us back to Heather Peters and her search for what she considered truth. She looked first to Honda, and later to the EPA via its mileage stickers. She finally went to court, where a judge ultimately ruled, in the world of advertising, puffery may trump truth.

On her website DontSettleWithHonda.org, Peters called it a “sad day when regulations designed to protect consumers are used against them.” She called on the Federal Trade Commission and the Environmental Protection Agency to “revisit the regulations to better protect consumers.”

Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s membership-funded, nonprofit consumer organization. Individual and business memberships are available at modest rates. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for information, write Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer 04412, visit necontact.wordpress.com or email contacexdir@live.com.

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