Jan. 3, 2012 -- Small claims court, by definition, is a small-stakes, usually humdrum venue for tenant-landlord disputes and the like. But combined with social media, it could challenge class-action lawsuits as a way consumers can seek redress from companies for allegedly faulty products.
That's what Heather Peters, 46, a California former corporate defense lawyer, thinks. Her view will be tested in the Small Claims Court in Torrance, Calif.
Today's trial will consider Peters' suit against American Honda Motor Company for allegedly failing to live up to its advertisements that Honda Civic Hybrid cars would get 50 miles per gallon, according to a statement Peters released. Her 2006 Civic Hybrid got 30 mpg, she said.
Peters is seeking damages of $10,000 -- the maximum allowed in Calif. small-claims court -- for the extra money she spent, plus the car's lower resale value.
Peters has started an online campaign consisting of a website, Twitter account and Youtube channel in order to take her suit viral and spark a "small-claims flash mob" of Civic Hybrid owners, her statement said.
Peters' statement said Honda was close to settling five class-action lawsuits alleging the same false advertising. The proposed settlements would give each class member $100 to $200, and the plaintiffs' attorneys would get $8.4 million.
A San Diego judge will consider the proposed settlements on March 16, Peters said, adding an earlier proposed settlement had been rejected as unfair to car owners.
Peters opted out of a class action out of frustration with the proposed payout, especially considering the millions plaintiffs' lawyers would get.
Therefore, if she loses her small-claims case, she would get nothing.
"I'm willing to bet $200 I'll do a lot better," she said in an interview on her way to the trial. She felt "very confident," she said.
Peters' campaign urges Civic owners to follow suit, opting out and suing Honda in small-claims court. Given the number of owners of Civic Hybrids -- approximately 200,000 -- and the $10,000 maximum damages, the wave of small-claims suits could cost Honda $2 billion, Peters said.
Honda has tried five times to have Peters' small-claims suit dismissed or the trial postponed until after the date by which class members may opt out of the class action, Peters said.
Honda would not comment on pending litigation, according to several press reports.