'They tried to destroy us'

…[Auto Masters] wanted to destroy us. It was Christmas Eve when (company boss Nigel Warr) gave us those breach notices. I knew at that time no one in their right mind would have done that, but he wanted us out. I believe from Mr Warr’s point it had turned from business decision into a personal attack. "I'll never stand by and let anybody do that. "We've gone through this, and we've had people approach us who are going through a similar thing. It's a big motivation to keep going."

August 11, 2010

‘They tried to destroy us'
Family and friends have stood strong behind Dave Coombes in his 12-year legal battle, writes Chalpat Sonti.
Chalpat Sonti


Denise and Dave Coombes have lived a nightmare in the past 12 years as they fight for justice. Photo: Chalpat Sonti

If anyone knows the meaning of hell, it is Denise Coombes.

She has lived through a version of it for the past 12 years, as her house and business disappeared, her husband was declared bankrupt and her young family could not have the things most take for granted.

Husband Dave Coombes, the former Midland franchisee of motor vehicle repairer Auto Masters, was dragged into a dispute with the company in 1998, when it accused him of withholding the processing of invoices – a job performed by Mrs Coombes - in order to delay paying it a royalty.


Dave Coombes’ Morley home was among the victims of his fight for justice.

Auto Masters served Mr Coombes a breach notice in December that year, which was then withdrawn, but re-served again on Christmas Eve.

After a long and costly court battle, Mr Coombes was proved right. Not only were Auto Masters' claims rejected, but the WA Supreme Court found it had acted unconscionably in trying to take his business off him.

Mr Coombes initially went to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission for help, but was rejected, meaning he had to fund his defence himself. It became even more expensive when Auto Masters decided to appeal the verdict.


Sticking together: Dave Coombes (centre) with son Andrew and daughter Rebecca.

He is now seeking an act of grace payment from the federal government of at least $1.8 million.

Mr Coombes argues that he has been hard done by on two counts. Firstly, the competition watchdog should have stepped in to help him, and then he correctly applied the law to protect his business but went broke in the process.

On the other hand, Auto Masters ended up with his business anyway, paying $4000 to the liquidator of Mr Coombes' company for a business previously valued at least 50 times that amount.


Patrick MacGeehan sold his vehicle to lend Dave Coombes $40,000 towards his legal costs - he is still waiting to be repaid. Photo: Chalpat Sonti

Marriage stands strong
As Mr Coombes battled Auto Masters, lawyers, and government bodies in his pursuit of justice, his wife has stood by his side through thick and thin, when many couples in a similar situation have seen their relationship destroyed.

So why?


Ron Maas refused to cash his pay cheques to help Dave Coombes in his legal battle. Photo: Chalpat Sonti

"I believe we were right," she said.

"I know we were doing the right things. (Auto Masters) wanted to destroy us. It was Christmas Eve when (company boss Nigel Warr) gave us those breach notices. I knew at that time no one in their right mind would have done that, but he wanted us out. I believe from Mr Warr’s point it had turned from business decision into a personal attack.

"I'll never stand by and let anybody do that.

"We've gone through this, and we've had people approach us who are going through a similar thing. It's a big motivation to keep going."

The family's well-appointed Morley home, and the accompanying trappings of a lifetime's hard work, are gone.

Mrs Coombes said she had little time for the government bodies that she believed have let her family down.

"I just can't believe that no matter that the Supreme Court says you're right, government departments can just overrule them. That's what the ACCC is saying to us - the Supreme Court was wrong.

"Yet they have backed us twice. So who is wrong?"

Despite the stress of the battle – including on their two now-adult children - her family have stuck together, Mrs Coombes said.

"David is tenacious and it's got him where he is now. It's a good quality to have but we've also kept our sense of humour too.

"We always been able to have a laugh and nobody's been able to take our sense of humour away. As long as we keep our family unit together, we'll be fine."

A little help from your friends
But it has not just been the family who has fought the fight. Friends and even former customers have helped in many ways.

Mr Coombes estimated about $100,000 has been contributed to his legal costs, while one employee even helped out by not cashing pay cheques.

Another, from Harvey, would travel to Perth and sleep on the office floor overnight during the week, so Mr Coombes could devote his time to the litigation.

Patrick MacGeehan first met Mr Coombes in 1999, when he brought in a vehicle to be serviced.

The consultant geologist ended up lending him $40,000 towards his legal costs, an amount that has yet to be repaid.

"When he first told me of his battles with Auto Masters I thought he was being hard done by," Mr MacGeehan said.

"I had to sell my vehicle to get the money together to help him, but I thought he had a very good case.

"I'm a believer in legal process and I knew Dave was right. Then he wins the case and he's still waiting. That's not fair."

Mechanic Ron Maas, an employee of Mr Coombes, refused to cash his pay cheques to help out his boss during the appeal.

"You could say I've been waiting for a bloke like Dave to come along for a long time, somebody who's talking the truth," he said.

"He'd already got the (original court) decision, now he is in this constant battle. But it's not over yet. That's the sort of guy Dave is. He has the tenacity."

Despite an offer of $15,000 by Mr Maas for some of the businesses plant and equipment, after the company was placed into liquidation, everything was sold to Auto Masters for $3750.

"They told me that it was just easier to sell it all to Auto Masters," Mr Maas claimed.

He could not believe what Mr Coombes has had to go through.

"If someone came to you with this story and showed you the proof, it's hard not to say 'yes, I believe you'," he said.

"You would think any public officer would be able to look at that same proof, read it through, and draw the same conclusions we're all drawing, and what the court drew. But no, no, no, they didn't.

"This should never have had to go to court. The ACCC had this information and they could have acted on it."

Mr MacGeehan, still waiting and hopeful that one day he will be paid back, said his friend was a "true Aussie battler".

"Look, it's almost not a question of money now, it's a matter of principle. Dave's been hard done by here, and it needs to be put right."

Source: watoday.com.au


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