Leading Australian wheelie bin manufacturer Mastec is seeking unspecified damages against Trident Plastics, following the recent Federal Court ruling which found Trident guilty of misleading and deceptive conduct.
The Federal Court action, which was launched by Mastec in 2016, was centred around Trident’s unlawful use of confidential drawings owned by Mastec to produce its own range of bins, as well as the deceptive and dishonest claims made in a number of Trident promotional brochures exaggerating the company’s pedigree and relationship with Mastec.
In his Judgement, which was handed down on December 21st, the Honourable Justice White found that:
- “…Mastec has made good its claims that it is the beneficial owner of the CAD Drawings concerning the product designs”;
- “…that Trident Plastics has made unlawful use of its confidential information” and;
- that “…Trident Plastics has engaged in misleading or deceptive conduct in contravention of s 18(1) and s 29(1) of the Australian Consumer Law (ACL)”.
The court heard that in 2003, Mastec had paid more than $645,000 for plastic moulding injection tools to create the its new range of 240-litre wheelie bins, lids, bin handle pins and bin handle inserts.
The problems arose in late 2012 when Trident started selling its own range of wheelie bins in 2012, with Mastec claiming that the lids on the Trident bins were the same or “substantially the same” as Mastec’s range of 240L household bins.
Mastec had pleaded that the features of the lid – and the computer-aided design (CAD) drawings used by Trident Plastics in the manufacture of its 240-litre range – were confidential, because in 2003 nobody else had designed tools for the manufacture of wheelie bins with these features, and that they had been disclosed to Trident in “confidential circumstances”.
Justice White upheld Mastec’s claims that it had beneficial ownership of the CAD drawings and that Trident Plastics had made unlawful use of the confidential information.
Justice White also found that Mastec’s contract with Trident Tooling (a subsidiary of Trident Plastics) included an “implied term” requiring it to keep the information and drawings confidential, and that through their actions, Trident Plastics and the company’s Managing Director, Steen Saurbrey “…have breached the equitable duty of confidence in the CAD Drawings of the tooling for the MGB lids.”
Furthermore, Justice White found that both Trident Plastics – which received a $500,000 South Australian State Government Automotive Supplier Diversification Program (ASDP) grant in 2015 to manufacture plastic rubbish bins – and Mr Saurbrey, had also engaged in deceptive conduct by lying about the company’s work pedigree in promotional documents marketing its wheelie bin range.
In reviewing Mr Saurbrey’s evidence, Justice White found that “…in a number of respects, it was not reliable.”
Furthermore, Justice White found that Mr Saurbrey “…had a tendency to understate or overstate matters” giving him “…the distinct impression that Mr Saurbrey “invented” some matters as his evidence proceeded.”
In his Judgement, Justice White noted:
“I mention some of the matters which gave rise to my concerns about the reliability of Mr Saurbrey’s evidence. The first was the dishonest statements which he caused Trident Plastics to make in its promotional brochures concerning its experience in the MGB industry.”
“Regrettably, I consider that these statements should be characterised as having been lies at the time they were made.”
“Mr Saurbrey acknowledged that he was the source of the information contained in the documents containing the dishonest statements. He had also read them and approved their use.”
“Mr Saurbrey’s attempts at explaining the lies did not do him credit. For example, he described the false claim that Trident Plastics had designed and built a 140 litre MGB as “accidental”. He could not explain the changes in the number of MGBs which Trident Plastics claimed to have manufactured for Mastec contained in the successive iterations of its promotional material.”
“I had the strong impression from this evidence that Mr Saurbrey was prepared to make statements as and when they suited him, without regard to their truth. I also considered that that attitude had carried over into the witness box.”
Excerpts quoted from FEDERAL COURT OF AUSTRALIA. Mastec Australia Pty Ltd v Trident Plastics (SA) Pty Ltd (No 2)  FCA 1581. File number: SAD 237 of 2016. Judge: WHITE J. Date of Judgement: 21 December 2017.
Companies and individuals found guilty of misleading and deceptive conduct face maximum fines of $1.1 million and $220,000 respectively.
Mastec declined to comment on the extent of the damages it was seeking, so as not to prejudice ongoing court proceedings.