Thursday, February 2, 2012
Honda Loses Small Claims Court Suit Over Hybrid Fuel Economy, Raising Questions About Alternatives to Class Actions
As the L.A. Times reports, Honda has lost a case filed in small claims court in California by a Civic hybrid owner who claims her Honda misrepresented the gas mileage possible. The owner apparently opted out of a proposed class action settlement that might provide $100 and new-car rebate coupons to Civic owners, and pay class counsel $8.5 million in attorneys fees. Instead, she filed in small claims court and after 3 hours of testimony over two days, she was awarded $9,867.19 in damages. (In California small claims courts, parties must appear without separate counsel; plaintiff here was an attorney representing herself, though her bar membership is apparently inactive.) Honda, however, plans to appeal the small claims award to Los Angeles County District Court. (H/t to my Mass Tort Litigation student Michelle Rosenberg, who sent me the story.)
Might small claims court be a viable alternative to class action litigation? Class actions of course are most appropriate in so-called negative value claims, where the cost of bringing individual suit exceeds the recovery sought. Small claims court, with its radically diminished transaction costs (and no attorneys' fees), could be seen to shrink the realm of negative value claims. And smalls claims court avoids the potential conflict of interest arising from the temptation for class counsel to settle class claims for a less than optimal amount, in pursuit of a hefty, sure, and speedy class counsel fee. Small claims court still wouldn't be worth the trouble of people who think they were defrauded only a dollar or two, but it might be a viable alternative if hundreds of dollars per claimant were at stake.