By DAN REYNOLDS, managing editor of Risk & Insurance®
A California woman's approach to suing Honda in small claims court for allegedly failing to produce the advertised gas mileage for her 2006 Honda Civic has been reported by the mainstream media as an unusual turn.
But it's really not, said Jeff Weil, the Philadelphia-based chairman of the litigation department for law firm Cozen O'Connor. He should know. Much earlier in his career he personally defended auto manufacturers on several occasions in small-claims court.
"I did a lot of cases in small claims court in Pennsylvania and I assume California is not that different," Weil said.
Should Honda Civic owner Heather Peters be successful in her action against the auto maker in small claims court in Torrance, Calif., home to American Honda Motor Company's West Coast headquarters, she could trigger some exposure for Honda's insurance carriers.
Small claims courts are places where plaintiffs bringing cases without the assistance of attorneys have a good chance of getting favorable treatment, Weil said.
"My experience clearly tells me that that forum is a plaintiff-friendly forum often-times," said Weil, "and, in fact, most often the plaintiff does not have a lawyer and the court almost bends over backward to assist the complainant to make their claim."
In published comments, Peters, a trained attorney who does not carry an active bar card, said her case could eventually lead to claims totaling as much as $2 billion against Honda, that is if every owner of the 200,000 or so cars in her class of Civic model file an action, be successful and get paid at the award-cap of $10,000.
That may be wishful thinking. To date, the number of 2006 Honda Civic owners following her lead could be closer to 500, according to published reports.
In a statement, the company said that it offered to inspect her vehicle and work with her on the findings, but those offers were rejected. Peters called that claim ?absolutely false,? according to a news report.
For insurers, the small-claims court approach has good and bad aspects to it. Insurers and their insureds well know that defense costs can burn through substantial layers of insurance coverage. Forsaking attorneys in small claims actions means no legal costs to speak of. But, Weil and other experts quoted on the topic, said the chances of the plaintiff winning are higher.
Class-action lawsuits with large settlements against businesses and other defendants frequently result in steep payments for attorneys, and many times the unnamed plaintiffs in the case see very little, Weil said.
Peters' approach is really just another piece of a cycle during which claimants in some periods see class actions as their best chance at getting justice. "To tell you the truth," said Weil, "these things kind of go in waves."
January 10, 2012
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