Little guy: 1. Honda: 0. That's the results from Round One of Honda v. Civic Hybrid Owner. Which isn't to say that Honda didn't make a valiant effort. And we've got the 120-page evidence packet they submitted to prove it. So how exactly did Honda try to take down Heather Peters?
Honda tried to dismiss Peters' assertions on multiple fronts, of which we will highlight a few. They called her $10,000 claim "ridiculous." They stood behind the independent testing that lead to the EPA numbers. "We have no choice; we have to put these numbers on the label," Honda's representative in court, Neil Schmidt, who had worked his way up from mechanic to litigation consultant for Honda over the years.
They further vouched that the largest determinant on what kind of fuel economy you got was how you drove it. Honda said they never heard from Peters about her unhappiness with the car until November and after she filed her suit they "immediately offered to inspect her vehicle and work with her on the findings, but those offers were rejected."
Comparing Peters problems to what they say are "many" Civic Hybrid owners who have written in pleased about their fuel economy, Honda said in their court filing that "Ms. Peters' asserted difficulties do not reflect any broader problem, and provide no basis for any recovery."
They also said that Heather should have noticed she wasn't getting the mileage she expected within a few months of purchase and brought it in for service, rather than filing suit five years after the fact, saying that she had "slept on her rights."
Furthermore, because Peters had her car serviced by a Honda dealer rather than Honda itself, Honda said it was not responsible for any mis-diagnosis the dealer may have made because, "AHM's dealers are independent businesses over which AHM itself has very little control." Honda attacked the basis for how Peters calculated her damages, calling them "conjectural" and that what she claimed to be a diminished resale value constituted "an unidentified stigma."
In their conclusion, Honda wrote that "Ms. Peters has proved neither liability nor damages, and thus has provided no basis for any award in this action. At most, this Court should award Peters what she would have received as part of the class settlement in San Diego."
The case has generated a lot of knee-jerk negative criticism of the plaintiff that trots out the usual tort-reformist tropes. "That's what you get it in a litigious society." "Great, just what frivolous lawsuits need: more encouragement." "Whatever happened to YMMV?" etc. But it's dangerous to whip those statements out without looking at the unique underlying facts of this specific case.
Consider: when it came out, the car was EPA rated 50 mpg combined, 49 mpg city and 51 mpg highway. Consumer Reports called these figures, "quite optimistic," and their testers achieved 37 mpg overall, 26 mpg city and 47 mpg highway. That's bad enough on its own, but that isn't the sole basis of Heather Peter's small claims suit (or that of the class action lawsuit she opted out of participating in). On top of that, Honda has come out and said that the battery on their '06-'08 hybrids "may deteriorate and eventually fail" faster than it's supposed to. Honda encouraged owners to get a software upgrade that was supposed to fix the battery issue, but what many Honda owners allege is that since the software update their mpg has actually dropped even further. "When the battery pack can't be charged to full capacity, the car relies more on the gas engine and fuel economy suffers," the Los Angeles Times reported.
Revised EPA figures came out in '08 that adjusted the rating on '06 Civic Hybrids down to 42 mpg combined, with 40 mpg city and 45 mpg highway.
"The revisions the EPA made to its fuel economy ratings have brought their numbers closer to what we feel car owners, in general, will experience in the real world," said Consumer Reports, while still noting that "even still, there can be notable variance with hybrids, particularly in city driving."
So based merely on Honda's statements and official government pronouncements, the Honda Civic Hybrid does not live up to the performance promised at the time it was sold.
This case is not about people who run their air conditioner too much and then complain they don't get the sticker mpg, or that "all hybrids" "suck" and engage in smoke and mirrors when it comes to mpg, because other hybrids do not have as great a disparity as this between the advertised EPA and what consumers are actually able to achieve on the road. And therefore, people who bought one thing and paid a certain price, and instead got something of lower quality, are entitled to seek monetary redress to make up the difference.
Photo Credit: Rich_Lem, AP