Trade secret self-driving carsOn Monday, May 15, 2017, Uber Technologies, Inc. narrowly sidestepped what could have been a complete shutdown of its autonomous vehicle program. Specifically, a federal district court judge declined to issue a temporary injunction against Uber and its self-driving car program. A copy of the order is available here, Waymo LLC v. Uber Technologies, Inc. (5-15-2107).

However, the District Court enjoined a key engineer leading Uber’s autonomous vehicle program from working on a critical component of the self-driving vehicle technology during the litigation.

The injunction arose out of a case filed in February 2017. The suit accused Uber and Google/Waymo’s former engineer of stealing trade secrets to develop an autonomous vehicle. The engineer, Anthony Levandowski, was an autonomous vehicle guru while at Waymo.

As we reported, Waymo alleged that Levandowski downloaded approximately 14,000 files comprising. According to the lawsuit, this amounted to 9.7 GB of confidential autonomous vehicle software data. The suit claims Levandowski missapropriated the data to help develop Uber’s autonomous vehicle program.

The New York Times reported on May 12, 2017 (by Mike Isaac) the judge previously referred the case to the United States Attorney’s office for possible theft of trade secrets. Such theft carries the possibility of criminal charges for those involved if the Department of Justice pursued the case. Anticipating as much, Mr. Levandowski decided to plead the Fifth Amendment to preserve the right against self-incrimination.

In today’s ruling, the judge reasoned,

Waymo L.L.C Has shown compelling evidence that its former star engineer, Anthony Levandowski, downloaded over 14,000 confidential files from Waymo immediately before leaving his employment there … Significantly, the evidence indicates that, during the acquisition, Uber likely knew or at least should have known that Levandowski had taken and retained possession of Waymo’s confidential files.

Having represented companies and engineers in pursuing and defending against trade secret litigation, the issues addressed in the court’s order are all too common. And while Uber can “spin” a partial victory from not having its autonomous vehicle program enjoined during the pendency of the litigation, this may prove to be a hollow victory.

First, Levandowski appears to be key to its self-driving car software development. Right now he is temporarily sidelined per the court’s order. But it would not be a surprise if Levandowski’s employment was eventually terminated (and likely sooner than later if criminal charges are pursued). Second, if there is evidence that Uber knew of the misappropriated trade secrets, its entire autonomous vehicle program could be enjoined, besides facing other civil or criminal sanctions.

We will continue to monitor this case. Meanwhile, the Waymo/Uber lawsuit is an important reminder to carefully evaluate measures to prevent new hires from wrongfully using trade secrets and confidential information of competitors. Such measures include having the right policies. They also include educating HR professionals and managers about the need to discourage and even police against such misappropriation.

For more information about trade secret misappropriation or the issues raised in this post, contact attorney Jason Shinn. Mr. Shinn routinely represents individuals and companies and trade secret and noncompete litigation in federal and Michigan lawsuits.