From the Circuit Court of Jackson County; Civil Appeal; Judge Timothy D. O'Leary; Reversed and Remanded With Directions
Before Dixon, P.j., Kennedy, Lowenstein, JJ.
This is an appeal from a judgment enjoining defendant/appellant Michael R. Graham from soliciting certain customers of plaintiff/respondent Empire Gas Corporation.
Empire Gas is a Missouri corporation engaged in the sale of propane (also referred to as liquefied petroleum gas or L.P. gas) and various propane-related equipment in 39 states. Approximately 70 percent of Empire's business is the sale of propane and the remaining consists of the sale of equipment. One-fourth of Empire's equipment business is the sale of carburetion, that is, the equipment and hardware used to convert motor vehicles from gas to propane.
Defendant Graham was hired on July 28, 1980, by Jasper Norman, regional sales manager for Empire. According to Norman and Martin Dryden (president of Empire), Graham's primary responsibility was the selling of carburetion equipment. Both stated that 90 percent of Graham's job was devoted to carburetion sales in the Kansas City metro area and 10 percent of his job was to act as Empire's direct liaison with Interstate Brands (a major customer of plaintiff). In connection with his carburetion sales, Norman testified that Graham was to call on existing carburetion customers in the area and to develop new customers. Graham obtained the name of prospective customers by perusing the Yellow Pages for companies with service vehicles, taking the names of companies from trucks seen on the street and receiving referrals from Empire's regional office. Norman testified that he had no knowledge of the specific prospects Graham had called on while he was with Empire.
Graham left Empire on June 24, 1981, and immediately began employment with Diversified Energy Systems, Inc., in Kansas City. Diversified is solely engaged in the sale of carburetion equipment and is a direct competitor of Empire's in the Kansas City metro area.
Empire brought suit to enforce the post-employment non-competition clauses of Graham's employment contract. The court issued an injunction prohibiting defendant, until June 24, 1984, from soliciting the sale of carburetion equipment to 61 named "entities." The list included mostly businesses, with one city and one municipal police department.
While plaintiff's petition prayed additionally for an injunction against defendant Graham's continued employment with Diversified, against his engaging in the liquefied petroleum business, against his hiring employees of Empire, and against his using Empire's customer lists, the injunction was not that broad. It covered only the solicitation of the specific named businesses as described in the preceding paragraph. Only defendant Graham appeals.
The question before us is whether the employment contract supports the injunction. The activities which were enjoined, i.e., the solicitation of certain named businesses for the sale of carburetion equipment, could only be in violation of paragraph 8 of the contract. This paragraph reads:
Employee agrees that in addition to any other limitation, for a period of three years after the termination of his employment hereunder, he will not, on behalf of himself or on behalf of any other person, firm or corporation, call on any of the customers of employer for the purpose of soliciting and/or providing to any of said customers any liquefied petroleum gas, nor will he, in any way, directly or indirectly, for himself or on behalf of any other person, firm or corporation, solicit, divert, or take away any customer of employer.
The decisive issue is whether the 61 named businesses were "customers" of Empire? With the exception of American Fence Company, Anderson Parks, Yellow Cab, Colonial Bakery, Exhibitors Film Delivery and Gelco Courier, there is no evidence that any of them were customers.
The term "customer" has not been defined in Missouri in the post-employment non-competition contract context. Black's Law Dictionary, 348 5th ed. (1979), says that a customer is "ne who regularly or repeatedly makes purchases of, or has business dealings with, a tradesman or business. . . . Ordinarily one who has had repeated business dealings with another."
Webster's Third New International Dictionary, 559 (1971), says that a customer is "one that purchases some commodity or service . . . esp.; one that purchases systematically or frequently . . . one that patronizes or uses the services . . ."
In Garrett v. Bank of Chelsea, 211 Mo. App.238, 241 S.W. 87, 89 (1922) the court defined "a customer of a bank" as "'a person who sustains habitual or consecutive business relations with a bank. The term involves something of useful habit; but it is not necessary that one should have an account at a bank to be included ...