BELIZE CITY, Tues. Feb. 23, 2016–Today, Supreme Court Justice Courtenay Abel torpedoed the national telecommunications giant Belize Telemedia Limited (BTL) and its co-defendant, Mek Mi Rich (MMR Production), when he ruled that the two companies had pirated the idea of lottery by SMS texting from the Corozal businessman Curtis Swasey, who prevailed in his civil lawsuit against both companies.
The case is a first of its kind in Belize’s high court, as it involved intellectual property rights and the breach of a confidentiality agreement between BTL and Swasey, whose concept for lottery by texting appears to have been used by MMR, one of whose directors is Andre Vega, a son of Deputy Prime Minister Gaspar Vega, and Andre Vega’s business partner, Sanjay Hotchandani.
Swasey’s lawsuit sought to recover damages for BTL’s breach of the confidential agreement he had signed with the company. In Justice Abel’s view, however, Swasey was unable to quantify how much damage he had suffered from BTL’s breach of the agreement, and because he was unable to provide a specific amount of damages that he had suffered, the court awarded Swasey only $25,000 in damages.
This damage award was based upon the amount MMR had paid BTL for the use of the lottery concept, which was meticulously laid out for BTL by Swasey, free of cost, over the two-and-a-half years that he had been in discussion with BTL and had provided them with floor charts and the other technical knowhow from IT expert Paul Elliot, who had worked with Swasey to perfect the concept of lottery using SMS texting.
Another sticking point at the climax of the case was the cost of court to be awarded to Swasey’s attorneys, Kareem Musa, the lead attorney, and his assistant, Wayne Piper. Justice Abel had suggested $50,000, but MMR’s attorney, Naima Barrow, objected on the grounds that the figure was too high.
While the cost of court has not yet been set, the judge has the discretion to make an award, as he stated in open court.
Swasey’s case, which was buttressed by a number of emails that he exchanged with BTL executives over the period of their collaboration, was more circumstantial in nature. There was no “smoking gun” evidence to confirm the nature of what transpired between BTL and MMR in respect of Swasey’s concept.
Justice Abel, however, said that he was more persuaded by the evidence provided by Swasey and Paul Elliot, which was in stark contrast to the testimony of Vega, Hotchandani and Caryn Wilson, the BTL Business Development Executive Officer, whose testimony Justice Abel said was not believable.
“I was singularly not impressed with the witnesses for BTL and MMR,” said Justice Abel in his judgment.
In addition, Justice Abel said he was not persuaded by BTL’s submission, made by its attorney Magali Perdomo, that Swasey’s concept was in the public domain. “Mr. Swasey’s concept did invite proprietary rights…and it follows that there was a breach by BTL in relation to Mr. Swasey’s SMS lottery concept,” he said.
Justice Abel said that there was a striking similarity between Swasey’s lottery concept and MMR’s business concept, which he found consistent with the use of information provided by Swasey to BTL.
At their initial meeting with Swasey in January 2012, one of BTL’s finance officers remarked, obviously jokingly, to him, “Mr. Swasey, you will be a young millionaire. What will you do with all that money? I hope you will not forget poor people like us.”
All members of BTL’s staff who had attended the meeting with Swasey were excited about the idea of lottery by SMS texting after they had met with Swasey and his technical guru, Paul Elliot, according to the evidence which came out at the trial.
On August 7, 2014, however, BTL’s Wilson wrote Swasey a letter informing him that his concept did not align with the company’s strategy at the time, thus ending their collaboration with him and his idea about Super Sunday, his name for the lottery by SMS texting, in which BTL’s communications network would have provided the hub.
Following the hearing, Swasey’s attorney, Kareem Musa, told reporters that it was a huge moral victory.
“As you know, the learned trial judge gave his decision today and it a huge moral victory. It’s a huge victory on principle for Mr. Swasey. I want to first of all commend him. In my opinion, he is a modern day David that went against the big telecommunications giant, Goliath BTL, and we all know who those principals are at BTL and Mek Mi Rich. He took on the giants and he came out victorious today. I am extremely proud of him for taking a stand, because from the very moment I met Mr. Swasey, I knew for a fact that he had had been wronged and it’s just a matter of taking it before the court and presenting the evidence to prove that in fact, over the course of two and a half years, BTL manipulated and actually extracted information from Mr. Swasey and then thereafter shared that information with Mek Mi Rich.
“And so today is vindication. It’s a huge victory and again, I am very proud of Mr. Swasey for stepping forward,” Musa said.
In respect of the judgment against her client, MMR’s attorney, Barrow, told reporters that it is a judgment that she is not comfortable with.
“My personal reflection is, it’s not a judgment I am comfortable with, would be comfortable taking. But the case is not mine. The case belongs to my client. They were not here today. Their representatives were able to make it. So I will be taking instructions on what will become of this. But it’s not a judgment I would be comfortable walking away with and say justice has been done,” Barrow said.
When one reporter suggested to the BTL attorney, Magali Perdomo, that the loss of the case was a moral hit against BTL, she did not share that view.
Perdomo said, “I wouldn’t necessarily say a moral hit. It was the case that was before the court. We presented our arguments and the judgment was handed down. I don’t know how it could be that the entire company suffers a moral hit because of one claimant and one claim … we are all agreed on the law. What we disagree on was the judge’s interpretation on the evidence and in fact, the judgment does say that the decision was based on circumstances and circumstantial evidence.” Perdomo added that she would be taking instructions from her client.
MMR has not been in operation while the court case was going on, and Musa said he has the option to seek an injunction to stop the company’s operation. This suggests that there may be further litigation involving MMR.