Waymo Took Legal Action Against Engineer Before Suing Uber

Updated on
  • Uber says its robocar rival pursued claims in arbitration
  • Ride-hailing company is fighting trade-secret theft lawsuit

Alphabet Inc.’s Waymo unit quietly took legal action against a former executive in its self-driving unit for allegedly betraying the company four months before it sued Uber Technologies Inc. for trade-secret theft, according to Uber.

Waymo initiated claims in private arbitration against Anthony Levandowski in October, accusing him of violating his contract’s confidentiality obligations and improperly recruiting colleagues for his own robocar venture, Uber said Wednesday in a court filing.

The ride-hailing giant is trying to convince a federal judge that Waymo’s claims against it belong in arbitration, not in court, because of the broad provisions in Alphabet’s arbitration agreement with Levandowski. Waymo declined to comment on Uber’s filing.

The court fight has intensified Alphabet’s rivalry with Uber, one of the Internet giant’s largest investments, and reflects an escalating talent war in the burgeoning autonomous-driving arena as tech and auto companies alike compete for skilled engineers. Both companies believe the robocar market will be worth hundreds of billions or even trillions of dollars a year.

If the central claims in the high-stakes case are moved into arbitration, the proceedings would be closed to the public.

14,000 Files

Levandowski, who now heads Uber’s self-driving division, was accused by Waymo of downloading 14,000 confidential files before he resigned in January 2016. He isn’t named as a defendant in Waymo’s February lawsuit. Instead, Waymo sued only Uber and Otto, the self-driving startup formed by Levandowski and acquired by Uber in August for $680 million.

Uber has said it wants to keep fighting Waymo’s patent-infringement claims in court, while moving the allegations of trade-secret theft and unfair competition into arbitration. The San Francisco-based startup also contends Waymo’s decision to omit Levandowski as a defendant was a deliberate end run around his contract to keep the case in court.

“Waymo especially should not be allowed to avoid arbitration where it has alleged pervasive collusion between Levandowski” and Uber, especially as the claims are founded on alleged misconduct by the engineer while he was a Waymo employee, Uber said in its filing. The company also noted that Levandowski was mentioned by name 35 times in Waymo’s amended complaint filed March 10.

‘All Disputes’

Uber said Levandowski’s arbitration agreement applies to “all disputes with anyone” arising out of his employment with Waymo, which was spun off in December from Google to its parent, Alphabet. Uber also contends its own bid for arbitration is supported by Waymo’s use of the same process against Levandowski.

Charlotte Garden, an associate law professor at Seattle University who’s been following litigation involving Uber, said it’s significant that Uber itself isn’t part of the arbitration agreement it’s trying to invoke. While the language in that agreement is “quite broad,” it may not go as far as Uber asserts, she said Wednesday.

“There is at least some ambiguity about whether that language was intended to cover only disputes between Levandowski and people or entities that were related to Google, rather than between Google and the entire world.”

The case is Waymo LLC v. Uber Technologies Inc., 17-00939, U.S. District Court, Northern District of California (San Francisco).

— With assistance by Mark Bergen

(Updates with law professor’s comment in 10th paragraph.)
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