Vestwin Trading Pte Ltd and Another v Obegi Melissa and Others

CourtHigh Court (Singapore)
JudgeAndrew Ang J
Judgment Date27 June 2006
Neutral Citation[2006] SGHC 107
Citation[2006] SGHC 107
Plaintiff CounselVinodh Coomaraswamy SC and Georgina Lum Baoling (Shook Lin & Bok)
Subject MatterInjunctions,Single action involving multiple parties,Whether pleadings closed as against each defendant on same date,Defendants obtaining confidential information from rubbish that plaintiffs placed out for collection,Application for interim injunction to be made permanent,Whether breach of confidence existing,Damages,Interim injunction granted to restrain defendants from use and disclosure of confidential documents and information,Whether plaintiffs thereby abandoning documents and precluded from asserting property rights in such documents,Pleadings,Elements to be satisfied to succeed in action for breach in non-contract cases,Whether damages sufficient to grant relief,Civil Procedure,Date for close of pleadings,Tort,Plaintiffs pleading loss of custom and business profits as general damages,Whether permanent injunctive relief justified,Whether plaintiffs required to plead loss of custom and business profit as special damages before inquiry can be ordered,Confidence,Order 14 r 14, O 18 r 20, O 25 r 1 Rules of Court (Cap 322, R 5, 2004 Rev Ed),Inquiry for assesment of damages caused by breach of confidence and/or conversion of property
Defendant CounselKenneth Tan SC, Christopher Chong Chi Chuin and Loy Sye Ling (Kenneth Tan Partnership)
Published date28 June 2006

27 June 2006

Andrew Ang J:

1 This action (in Suit No 542 of 2005) arose from three affidavits (“the Affidavits”) deposed to by the first defendant and filed by or on behalf of the second to eighth defendants in Suit No 632 of 2004 which was commenced by the third to seventh defendants against, inter alia, PT Indah Kiat Pulp & Paper Corporation (“Indah Kiat”) to enforce against the latter a judgment obtained in the Supreme Court of the State of New York on or about 13 April 2004 (“the New York judgment”).

2 The plaintiffs/applicants in this action are not parties to Suit No 632 of 2004. However, the Affidavits in the latter suit exhibited certain documents in respect of which the plaintiffs in this action claimed confidentiality. It was alleged that the documents had been obtained surreptitiously and by illegal means by the ninth and tenth defendants and passed on to the first to eighth defendants in breach of the obligation of confidence owed by the ninth and tenth defendants to the plaintiffs.

3 The plaintiffs further submitted that by receiving the documents in those circumstances and having notice then, or subsequently having been put on notice, that the documents were confidential, the first to eighth defendants similarly owed them a duty of confidence. The documents were used without the plaintiffs’ permission and, allegedly, to the detriment of the plaintiffs for which, they contended, damages would not be an adequate remedy.

4 Earlier, I allowed an interlocutory application (Summons in Chambers No 3784 of 2005) by the plaintiffs for an interim injunction against the defendants (restraining the use and disclosure of the documents and the information therein) and a mandatory injunction (requiring each of the defendants to deliver up to the plaintiffs all originals and copies of the said documents which were in their possession, custody, power or control).

5 I also allowed an application by the defendants in Suit No 632 of 2004 (Summons in Chambers No 3833 of 2005) for an order that certain pages in the Affidavits which made reference to or use of the documents be expunged.

6 There was no appeal against any of the above orders.

7 In the present application for summary judgment, the plaintiffs seek, inter alia:

(a) a permanent injunction restraining each of the defendants from using or disclosing confidential information and confidential documents (the “Plaintiffs’ Documents” more particularly described in the statement of claim) of the plaintiffs for any purpose whatsoever;

(b) a mandatory injunction requiring each of the defendants to deliver up to the plaintiffs all originals and copies of the Plaintiffs’ Documents which were in the possession, custody, power or control of the defendants or any of them; and

(c) an order that an inquiry be held as to the damage suffered by the plaintiffs by reason of the defendants’ breach of confidence and/or conversion of the plaintiffs’ property.

Preliminary point of procedure

8 A preliminary point raised by all the defendants, other than the eighth defendant, was that the application for summary judgment was brought out of time. Under O 14 r 14 of the Rules of Court (Cap 322, R 5, 2004 Rev Ed) (“the Rules”), no summons is to be filed more than 28 days after the pleadings in the action are deemed to be closed. (Note: “action” is in the singular form.) This requirement was introduced by the Rules of Court (Amendment No 4) Rules 2002 (S 565/2002)). Order 18 r 20 provides when pleadings in an action are deemed to be closed. (Again, “action” is in the singular.)

9 The last defendant to file its defence was the eighth defendant. The eighth defendant’s defence was filed on 8 December 2005. Under O 18 r 20 of the Rules (“the Rules”), therefore, pleadings were deemed closed on 22 December 2005, 14 days after the eighth defendant’s defence was filed.

10 Under O 14 r 14 of the Rules (as amended with effect from 1 December 2005), the plaintiffs had until 19 January 2006, 28 days after the close of pleadings, to file an application for summary judgment. The application for summary judgment was filed on 20 December 2005, well within the 28-day time limit.

11 All the defendants, save the eighth, argued that the application for summary judgment was out of time as against each of them. That argument could succeed only if O 18 r 20 could be read as providing that in a single action with multiple parties, pleadings would close as against each defendant on a different date.

12 That cannot be the case. Otherwise, the consequences would be that in a case such as this, where there are multiple parties in foreign jurisdictions and with the attendant delay in effecting service:

(a) close of pleadings will occur for each defendant on a different date;

(b) the time stipulated for taking out the summons for directions will expire as against each defendant on a different date;

(c) the plaintiff must therefore take out as many summonses for directions as there are defendants or risk being out of time;

(d) the court must give separate directions at separate hearings as regards how the plaintiff is to progress the action to trial as against each defendant; and

(e) in a personal injuries matter, different sets of automatic directions would take effect automatically, with different sets of deadlines running as against each defendant under O 25 r 8.

13 Such outcome cannot have been intended. It is contradicted by the words of O 18 r 20 which contemplate only one close of pleadings in any given action and of O 25 r 1 which contemplate only one summons for directions in any given action. Likewise, O 14 r 14 refers to an “action” in the singular form.

14 Further, the interpretation contended for by the defendants does not advance the underlying purpose of O 14 r 14. That amendment to the rules was added to ensure that resort to the summary judgment procedure is had at an early stage of the proceedings where the savings in costs would be most marked. Where some defendants have filed a defence and others have not filed a defence, it cannot be said that the proceedings are at an advanced stage. Indeed, it cannot be said that the matters in issue in the action have been properly crystallised until the last defendant has filed its defence.

15 To require that the plaintiffs take out separate applications for summary judgment against the respective defendants would lead to multiplicity of actions and wastage of costs. All the reasons in favour of a single trial also point to why there should be a single O 14 application. I conclude therefore that the plaintiffs’ application is within time not only as against the eighth defendant but as against all the defendants. Even if I were wrong, this would seem to me a paradigm case where the court should allow an extension of time to prevent injustice.

16 As Mustill LJ said in Erskine Communications Ltd v Worthington The Times (8 July 1991):

[I]t would be absurd to say that every instance of overstepping the time limit without excuse, however short and however lacking in harmful consequence to the defendant, should be punished by the loss of the action.

17 Apart from the preliminary point of procedure raised by the defendants, two points of principle were raised in submissions by the plaintiffs at the outset, viz:

(a) The fact that one or more points of law arise on an application for summary judgment does not necessarily mean that leave to defend must be given: Tokyo Investment Pte Ltd v Tan Chor Thing [1993] 3 SLR 170.

(b) Where the plaintiffs’ entitlement to judgment depends on a clear-cut question of law, the court will hear full arguments as to the point of law rather than grant leave to defend: Cascade Shipping Inc v Eka Jaya Agencies (S) Pte Ltd [1992] 1 SLR 197.

I accepted that where the answers to legal issues were clear, there being no arguable defence, to grant leave to defend would unnecessarily delay the disposal of the action. Bearing that in mind, I proceeded to hear the application.

Abandonment of the rubbish?

18 The third to seventh defendants appointed the tenth defendant to locate assets belonging to Indah Kiat in Singapore as part of the third to seventh defendants’ efforts to enforce the New York judgment in Singapore.

19 The ninth defendant is a director of the tenth defendant. From the middle of January 2005 to 22 July 2005, the ninth defendant made almost daily trips to Orchard Towers where the plaintiffs’ offices were located and (in the words of the ninth defendant in his first affidavit[note: 1]) “retrieved” the plaintiffs’ trash bags “when the plaintiffs’ cleaner [threw] trash bag(s) in the common rubbish dump” on the ground floor of Orchard Towers. (In the ninth defendant’s second and third affidavits, after he was challenged, he explained that the documents were “retrieved” from the walk lane next to the common rubbish dump.)

20 On the uncontroverted evidence of Shilton John Ree, the building manager of Orchard Towers, the loading bay and bin centre at Orchard Towers is “private property from which the Management Corporation Strata Title No 664 (“the MCST”) has the right to and takes steps to exclude unauthorised persons from gaining access. The MCST permits only restricted access to this area by authorised personnel for the purposes of loading or unloading goods and/or refuse collection”. The MCST exercises control over the bin centre by:

(a) placing the area under 24-hour surveillance;

(b) stationing a security guard from 7.00am to 7.00pm to direct traffic. Part of the security guards’ duties is to prevent unauthorised persons from removing rubbish bags from the MCST’s property; and

(c) placing a sign warning trespassers to keep out.

21 The plaintiffs asserted that when they disposed of documents in their rubbish, it was for the sole purpose of the same being collected and disposed of by authorised rubbish disposal personnel acting in the course of their duties. By the ninth defendant’s own admission, his method of obtaining the...

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