Once upon a time, a woman bought a Honda Civic Hybrid. She lived in California, and she drove it around. At some point, whether on her own, or because of the big class action case that sprung from the left side of a lawyer’s head, she realized that the car wasn’t as fuel efficient as she was promised. The lawyers did their thing, obtaining for gypped consumers something like $100.00 and some coupons toward the purchase of a new car (all the while collecting about $8.5 million in legal fees). The woman didn’t like that.
She turned down the settlement (opted out). She filed her own lawsuit in California small claims court, which has a maximum recovery of $10,000 (the woman is a former attorney from about 10 years ago).
The news articles about this all play up the fact that, in California, defendants in small claims courts aren’t allowed to have lawyers show up for them. The news articles see this as a leveling of the playing field. I don’t agree with that. First, I doubt the small claims courts of most states have that rule (I haven’t done a survey, though). Maryland certainly doesn’t. Second, the real question is who the corporation is allowed to designate. There must be a real human, because the ethereal corporation itself can’t show up to court. I can’t imagine that Honda’s President would be required to show up. California rules state that:
Corporation or other legal entity — A corporation or other legal entity (that is not a natural person) can be represented by a regular employee, an officer, or a director; a partnership can be represented by a partner or regular employee of the partnership, but the representative may not be an attorney or person whose only job is to represent the party in small claims court.
Something tells me that many big corporations have many “regular employees” who are also lawyers. Something tells me that Honda isn’t worried about who it will bring on board. Is an in-house lawyer a regular employee? Maybe. At any rate, Honda tried to move the January 3 trial date, but was unsuccessful. According to the twitter feed by the owner, @DontSettleWithHonda, the trial went great and she is hoping for a decision by Friday. We’ll keep you updated.
There are two points to be made, here:
First, class actions are not all bad. In the Honda case, the judge rejected the first settlement proposal because it didn’t give enough to the Honda car owners. Judges oftentimes scrutinize the final settlements to make sure that they are fair. That said, the current settlement proposal, $100 in cash plus a transferable $500 coupon (or non-transferable $1,000 coupon) on another Honda sticks in my craw a bit. The whole coupon thing is irritating. If Honda (or any other company) provided me with a bad product, or with false, fraudulent and deceptive marketing, why do I want to buy another one of their products? Why do I want to encourage other people to buy their products? They simply raise the cost of next years’ car by $1,000, and they have nothing to worry about. Doesn’t affect them at all. The $100 per consumer adds up, and the fact that they have to pay outrageous (from their perspective) amounts in attorneys fees, plus the cost of defending the lawsuit, is a good thing, though. Some amount of punishment is important, and most people won’t file lawsuits individually. Class actions help to keep corporations accountable–maybe it’s just the best we can do in these circumstances.
Second, non-lawyers can file their own lawsuits. It’s scary. It can be complex if you’ve never been through it before. Technically, you can file your own lawsuits for small claims or even larger claims (though it gets really tricky outside of small claims, it has been done). But if you are nice to the court’s clerks, if you have time to research what you need to do, and if you have a lawyer friend to give you advice (sure, give me a call!), you can do it. For Marylanders, check out CharmCityLawyer’s self-help page and visit the District Court of Maryland’s terrific instructional website.