Here in California, we’re pretty much legally obligated to love our hybrid cars, our medical marijuana, and our activist judges. But what happens when treasured liberal clichés don’t live up to the hype?

A former attorney in Los Angeles is unsatisfied with her Honda Civic hybrid’s gas mileage. It seems her supposedly high-efficiency car was emitting more smog than smug. A class action lawsuit against the auto manufacturer probably won’t give her the relief she wants. So she is taking on Honda in an unusual judicial venue and hoping to remove lawyers from the equation….

Heather Peters is unhappy that a proposed class action settlement with Honda would net trial attorneys $8.5 million but only give her $100. Today, Peters will appear in Los Angeles Small Claims court to take on the auto giant — sans attorneys.

The Los Angeles Times has more details:

Peters believes that she found a venue where she can win justice and where Honda can’t spend a single dollar on legal help.

On Jan. 3 she’ll take her case to Small Claims Court in Torrance, where California law prohibits Honda from bringing an attorney. She’s asking for the maximum of $10,000 to compensate her for spending much more on gasoline than expected. Honda said the Civic would get about 50 miles per gallon, but because of technical problems the car gets closer to 30 mpg.

For what it’s worth, I thought it was a given that official “estimated miles per gallon” numbers are hooey. I’ve never had a car that consistently got the mileage it was supposed to get.

Regardless, a Honda class action lawsuit has been working its way through the courts since 2007. As the Times explains, “Honda has acknowledged that the battery on 2006 through 2008 Civic hybrids ‘may deteriorate and eventually fail’ earlier than expected. When the battery pack can’t be charged to full capacity, the car relies on the gas engine more and fuel economy suffers.”

A Riverside, California judge rejected a settlement last year, because plaintiffs wouldn’t be paid enough. A re-negotiated settlement is scheduled to be approved in March. Plaintiffs will get $100 and either a $500 rebate that they could sell or a $1,000 rebate on a new Honda or Acura.

Sounds like a typical class action to me. Fat stacks for counsel, peanuts for the plaintiffs. Because class actions are essentially the only way individuals can go after big companies, kudos to Peters for attempting a different strategy.

Peters set up a website to encourage other Civic owners to join her “legal flash mob.” She wants to bombard Honda with a bunch of individual cases that the company has to fight separately. The site, DontSettleWithHonda.org, has the most insane design I have seen recently. It looks like something out of Paranormal Activity.

Who knows how many people will take up her call. Going to court — even traffic court — is an unpleasant prospect for most non-legal professionals. Plus, some states allow attorneys in Small Claims Court. But $10,000 is quite a carrot. It will be interesting to see if Peters’s case is at all effective. Will it blow the lid off a new method of suing large companies?

Car owner takes legal fight away from lawyers [Los Angeles Times]


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