Heather Peters got the better of two big industries - international carmakers and high-dollar lawyers - when she spurned a class-action lawsuit and went one-on-one against American Honda Motor Co. in a California small claims court.
She would have had a harder time doing that in North Carolina.
Peters, a Los Angeles resident, was awarded $9,867 for the cost of gas and other damages last week, after a judge agreed that Honda misled her into thinking her 2006 hybrid Civic would get 50 miles to the gallon. It gets about 30.
Triangle residents are among several thousand owners of hybrid Civics who have until Saturday to accept or reject a proposed settlement in a class-action suit over defective batteries that sapped the cars' fuel economy.
Peters opted out of the deal because it gives each car owner some purchase vouchers and just $100 to $200 in cash, while the lawyers' share exceeds $8 million. Now Peters is an evangelist for small claims courts as a source of modest but swift justice for aggrieved car owners and other consumers.
"This is really about the decline in customer service in America and how we have rolled over and accepted it for too long," Peters told The Associated Press.
Small claims courts work differently in each state. Lawyers and court officials say Peters would have faced more obstacles if she had pursued her hybrid Civic case here.
"I don't think it would work in North Carolina," said Ray Postlethwait, a Durham lawyer who represents car owners. "The court system here is a lot more conservative than the one in California."
Unlike California, North Carolina allows plaintiffs and defendants to hire attorneys for small claims court. The limit on damages here is $5,000 - half the maximum in California.
And North Carolina law says a small claims case must be filed in the county where the defendant lives or does business. Selling cars through a local dealership doesn't count.
"Charlotte has offices for General Motors and Chrysler," Postlethwait said. "You might be able to go down there and bring a small claim against them. But not Honda."
Dexter Williams, Wake County's chief magistrate, presided over small claims court for seven years before he took the top post. Most small claims actions involve unpaid debts or landlord-tenant disputes, he said. Occasionally, the plaintiff is an unhappy used-car buyer.
The lemon law
The best legal tool for buyers of bad cars is the North Carolina "lemon" law.
The law covers warranty defects on new cars only. It comes into play after the buyer complains in writing and allows reasonable time for a repair, and the manufacturer fails after several attempts to fix it.
Under the lemon law, the manufacturer must replace the lemon with a comparable new car - or buy it back.
"We've had cars that won't start, steering problems, doors that won't close properly, dashboard systems that won't come on, paint problems, headlights that don't work," Postlethwait said. "It's crazy some of the stuff that happens to these cars."
Some car warranties and financing plans require buyers to try alternative methods of dispute resolution before they go to court. Still, Postlethwait said, the lemon law has helped lots of car owners.
"It's one of the few consumer laws we have left in North Carolina," he said.