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Am. Wheel & Eng. Co. v. Dana Mold. Prod.

OPINION FILED MARCH 28, 1985.

AMERICAN WHEEL & ENGINEERING COMPANY, INC., ET AL., PLAINTIFFS AND COUNTERDEFENDANTS-APPELLANTS,

v.

DANA MOLDED PRODUCTS, INC., ET AL., DEFENDANTS AND COUNTERPLAINTIFFS-APPELLEES.



Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County; the Hon. David J. Shields, Judge, presiding.

JUSTICE JOHNSON DELIVERED THE OPINION OF THE COURT:

Plaintiffs, American Wheel & Engineering Company, Inc. (American Wheel), and Richard Brodner, its president, appeal from a judgment of the circuit court of Cook County in favor of defendants. Plaintiffs contend the following findings of the trial court were contrary to the manifest weight of the evidence: (1) that plaintiffs did not possess a trade secret in either a plastic formula or certain customer information; (2) that defendants did not participate in any deceptive business practices in competing against plaintiffs; and (3) that defendants did not use fraud in obtaining a series of promissory notes from plaintiff.

We affirm.

Testimony at trial established that American Wheel, an Illinois corporation, sells plastic caster wheels. Dana Molded Products, Inc. (Dana), defendant, is an Illinois corporation in the business of plastic injection molding, a process whereby molten plastic is injected into a metal mold of a desired part and chilled until solidification. Janbar Wheel Corporation (Janbar), defendant, is an Illinois corporation that sells plastic caster wheels, and Daniel Hidding, defendant, is the president of Dana and Janbar.

In 1975, plaintiff Brodner organized American Wheel and asked Dana to be its molder. Dana bought raw materials directly from suppliers, provided all of the equipment to operate the molds, and provided the labor necessary to make the wheels. Dana designed the molds, but American Wheel owned them. When American Wheel made a sale, Dana would mold the product and ship it directly to American Wheel's customer. Dana billed American Wheel and American Wheel billed the customer; the customer paid American Wheel directly and American Wheel paid Dana.

This relationship began to deteriorate sometime in 1978. Late in that year, Hidding decided to market caster wheels himself and established Janbar Corporation for that purpose. On or before January 17, 1979, Hidding informed Brodner that he would sell wheels as a competitor of American Wheel and, therefore, American Wheel should remove its caster wheel mold from Dana to another molder.

During this time, American Wheel's account with Dana fell into arrears, but Dana continued to mold for American Wheel. Brodner and Hidding negotiated to resolve their financial differences. Sometime in February 1979, American Wheel executed six promissory notes, personally guaranteed by Brodner, to cover all past due invoices over 30 days, payable over four months and bearing interest after maturity. Dana continued to mold wheels for American Wheel's customers until plaintiffs filed this lawsuit.

In plaintiffs' complaint, filed February 23, 1979, they claimed that defendants (1) misappropriated an alleged trade secret (the formula for the plastic compound from which the wheels were manufactured) and information on plaintiffs' customers, (2) participated in deceptive trade practices, and (3) fraudulently induced plaintiffs to execute the promissory notes. Plaintiffs sought damages on their trade secrets and deceptive business practices claims, and rescission of the notes based on the fraud claim. On January 10, 1984, the court, in a bench trial, rendered judgment for defendants on all issues, specifically finding that no trade secret existed in the plastic formula, that plaintiffs made no effort to protect the secrecy of any customer list, and that defendants did not use fraud in obtaining the promissory notes from plaintiffs. Plaintiffs appeal.

I. TRADE SECRETS ISSUE

A. THE FORMULA

• 1 Plaintiffs claim that the trial court erred in finding no trade secret in the formula for the plastic compound from which the caster wheels were manufactured.

Testimony established that plaintiffs employed Complas Industries, Inc., a custom compounder, and Keystone Testing Laboratories, a product testing company, to develop a type of plastic that reached specified levels of durability, impact load, and temperature. Complas experimented with Complas PP6200, a generic compound of rubber and polypropolene materials having similar minimum physical property characteristics, commonly and widely used in manufacturing caster wheels. The record shows that Complas' experiments entailed varying the combinations of the "ingredients" to PP6200 to obtain a particular "recipe" that yielded a plastic possessing the specifications that plaintiffs desired. Plaintiffs claim that this recipe of PP6200 is their trade secret and that defendants misappropriated it when they began selling caster wheels made of the same recipe.

A trade secret is generally described as "a plan or process, tool, mechanism, compound, or informational data utilized by a person in his business operations and known only to him and such limited other persons to whom it may be necessary to confide it." (ILG Industries, Inc. v. Scott (1971), 49 Ill.2d 88, 92, 273 N.E.2d 393, 395.) An exact definition of a trade secret is impossible because it includes a wide spectrum of categories subject to variations depending upon the facts of a particular case. (ILG Industries, Inc. v. Scott (1971), 49 Ill.2d 88, 92, 273 N.E.2d 393, 395.) Some factors that a court may consider in determining whether particular information is a person's trade secret include "`(1) the extent to which the information is known outside of his business; (2) the extent to which it is known by employees and others involved in his business; (3) the extent of measures taken by him to guard the secrecy of the information; (4) the value of the information to him and his competitors; (5) the amount of effort or money expended by him in developing the information; (6) the ease or difficulty with which the information could be properly acquired or duplicated by others.'" ILG Industries, Inc. v. Scott (1971), 49 Ill.2d 88, 93, 273 N.E.2d 393.

The trial court was not in error in finding that plaintiffs do not have a trade secret in the contested recipe of PP6200. Although plaintiffs fulfill the fifth factor (an investment of approximately $37,482 into the development of ...


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