A woman who expected her high-tech hybrid to be a high-mileage machine wants car maker Honda to pay for not delivering the 50mpg it promised.
But rather than being one of thousands in a class-action lawsuit, Heather Peters has taken her fight to the small claims court and says it could lead to similar cases throughout the world.
Experts say Ms Peters, of Los Angeles, has a better chance of winning her case in a court with more relaxed standards and could get a payout many times higher than the few hundred dollars offered to class-action plaintiffs.
Ms Peters said she had been contacted by hundreds of owners, some from as far away as Australia, who also want to take their chances with small claims.
If other owners follow her lead, she estimates Honda could be forced to pay as much as $2bn (£1.3bn) in damages.
Ms Peters has launched a website, DontSettleWithHonda.org, urging others to take their complaints to the small claims court.
"If I prevail and get $10,000, they have 200,000 of these cars out there," she said.
Ms Peters, a state employee and ex-lawyer, argues that the Japanese manufacturer knew her 2006 Civic Hybrid would not achieve the 50mpg as advertised before a judge in Torrance, California, where American Honda Motor Company has its West Coast headquarters.
As the vehicle's battery deteriorated over time, it barely achieved 30mpg, she said.
Neil Schmidt, a technical expert for Honda, called Ms Peters' $10,000-dollar (£6,400) claim excessive.
He said the US government had required Honda to post the highest mileage the car could achieve, but said the mileage varied depending on how the car was driven - for instance, if it was often stuck in stop-start traffic.
But Ms Peters said she would have never bought the car if she had known that.
"The sales force said 50 miles per gallon, but they didn't say if you run your air conditioning and you remain in stop-and-go traffic, you're going to get 29 to 30 miles per gallon," she said.
"If they did, I would have gotten the regular Civic."
Small claims courts generally handle private disputes that do not involve large amounts of money. In many states, that means small debts, quarrels between tenants and landlords and contract disagreements.
A victory for Ms Peters could encourage others to take the same simplified route.
Ms Peters opted out of a series of class-action lawsuits filed on behalf of Honda hybrid owners over the cars' fuel economy, when she saw a proposed settlement would give plaintiffs no more than $200 cash (£128) and a rebate of $500 (£320) or $1,000 (£641) to purchase a new Honda.
Honda sold about 200,000 of the cars over the period covered by the settlement, which would earn trial lawyers $8.5 million (£5.4m), Ms Peters said.
"I was shocked," she said. "I wrote to Honda and said I would take $7,500, which was then the limit on small claims in California. It is going up to $10,000 in 2012.
"I wrote the letter and I said, 'If you don't respond, I will file a suit in small-claims court'. I gave them my phone number. They never called."
Honda said today Ms Peters had never contacted the company to complain or express any concern about her vehicle's fuel economy until she sent a letter in late November and then filed her suit shortly afterwards.
"Once the suit was filed, Honda immediately offered to inspect her vehicle and work with her on the findings, but those offers were rejected," the company said in a statement.
The company also said it did not believe Ms Peters was deceived.
"The window sticker that was attached to her vehicle (as required by federal law) clearly indicated that her mileage would vary depending on driving conditions, options, vehicle condition and other factors," the statement said.
Superior Court Commissioner Douglas Carnahan issued no immediate ruling in Ms Peters' case yesterday, but his staff said he would rule this week. Civil class-action cases almost always take years to resolve.
A judge in San Diego County is due to rule in March on whether to approve Honda's class-action settlement offer for hybrid owners. Plaintiffs have until February 11 to accept or reject the deal.Reuse content