Chemist Warehouse dismissed

While we are on the subject of misleading or deceptive conduct, the Full Court has dismissed “Chemist Warehouse”‘s appeal from Middleton J’s dismissal of its claim that stores like these:

Another view
Another view
Direct Chemist Outlet
Direct Chemist Outlet

misrepresented an association of some sort with stores looking something like this:

Some Chemist Warehouse storefronts
Some Chemist Warehouse storefronts

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There were some 19 grounds of appeal which the Full Court worked their way through in detail. The central problem for Chemist Warehouse was that Full Court said there was no error in Middleton J’s finding that the predominantly yellow colouring of the exterior of the Chemist Warehouse outlets was not distinctive – the distinctive feature was the “Chemist Warehouse” logo:

no error has been shown in his Honour’s findings that the primary colour palette used by Chemist Warehouse was not distinctive. First, there was considerable variability in the nature of the Chemist Warehouse get-up. The primary judge distinguished other authorities where secondary branding had been accepted on the basis of a consistent presentation of colours in a particular juxtaposition. Second, the colours had a functional aspect. Colour can be used for its practical or functional utility, for example, high visibility for a road sign. In the present case his Honour appears to have accepted that the colour yellow was used to take advantage of the attributes of visibility and its association with discount value; but such a function could apply to any type of discount goods, not just pharmacy goods. The use of yellow to create the so-called “yellow box” was also to draw the attention of potential consumers on the street; it cannot be said that the use of the colour yellow in that way denoted trade origin. His Honour accepted the functionality of yellow (see at [9], [10], [12], [14] and [100]). He also accepted that the yellow, blue and red combination served a functional purpose (see at [240]). No error is demonstrated in any of these findings.

Fourth, the dominant and distinctive “Chemist Warehouse” logo was the only consistent branding element across the appellants’ stores prior to May 2006 ….

The fact that other stores, like JB Hi-Fi and Ted’s Camera’s used a predominantly yellow background to attract attention was also not irrelevant to whether its use on pharmacies was distinctive.

Moreover, even if the get-up had been distinctive, there would have been no misrepresentation:

in any event, even if a colour-based reputation could have been shown, that would not have answered the question of whether there had been misleading or deceptive conduct or a misrepresentation.  The respondents had a different get-up with different distinguishing features.  Indeed the primary judge had distinguished the respondents’ stores by not only the “Direct Chemist Outlet” trade mark but also the different distinctive logo, cleaner appearance and lifestyle photographs.  None of these were part of the appellants’ pleaded get-up.  The respondents’ schedules two and three to its closing submissions, by reference to the primary evidence before his Honour consisting of the relevant photos, well summarise the variability in get-up used at the DCO stores and the Chemist Warehouse stores, and relevant differences.

The Full Court pointed out that proof DCO had copied elements of its get-up from Chemist Warehouse was not sufficient to invoke the principle from Australian Woollen Mills that someone who sets out to deceive will be presumed to have succeeded. For that principle to apply, it was necessary to show not just copying but also a subjective intention to mislead or deceive – to appropriate part of the trade or reputation of the competitor.

Finally (for the purposes of this note), the Full Court accepted Middleton J’s view that the appropriate time to assess whether DCO’s conduct was misleading or deceptive was when DCO first commenced use of its present get-up. Chemist Warehouse argued, in the alternative, that Middleton J should have made the assessment for each individual DCO store at the time it opened – the so-called geographical approach. Middleton J pointed to a number of problems with this approach. One problem was that there were some areas where the Chemist Warehouse store opened after the DCO store – who would be making the misrepresentation then. Further:

… if the Applicants and Respondents were concurrently trading and building independent reputations in separate areas, it may have been the case that it was not the Respondents’ conduct that was misleading or deceptive at that later time.

For example, the Lalor DCO store opened in 2014, well after 26 May 2006. Both parties had advanced their own reputations by that time. What is the Court to conclude is the position of the competing parties in that particular area and at that particular time? It is to be recalled that since 26 May 2006 both businesses involved in this proceeding have increased their respective exposure to the relevant consumers by opening many new stores. There has been co-existence in the market place for approximately eight years prior to litigation commencing. Further, stores have opened in numerous locations, and Chemist Warehouse stores have opened in close proximity to existing DCO stores (as in the case of the Warrnambool store, for example).

In any event, his Honour considered that the DCO get-up sufficiently distinguished its stores from Chemist Warehouse stores that no misrepresentation was likely to arise.

The Full Court considered Middleton J’s analysis was “unremarkable” and no error was identified.

Verrocchi v Direct Chemist Outlet Pty Ltd [2016] FCAFC 104