Uber Technologies says a guilty plea by its former star engineer is proof that he is a liar – and supports its decision to make Anthony Levandowski alone shoulder a US$180 million legal award Google won against him.
The ride-hailing firm, which recruited Levandowski in 2016 from Google parent Alphabet’s self-driving car programme, ended up firing him after the companies became embroiled in one of Silicon Valley’s highest-profile trade secrets disputes. While Levandowski’s woes deepened this year – he agreed to plead guilty to trade secret theft and was driven into bankruptcy when Google won a contract-breach arbitration case against him – he was counting on Uber’s promise when it first hired him to provide legal cover, known as indemnification, from his former employer. Uber has said it has no obligation to reimburse Levandowski for the US$180 million.
Levandowski “secretly committed a crime by stealing trade secrets with the intent to use them at Uber”, the ride-hailing company said in a court filing. “If Uber had known that, it never would’ve entered into any agreements with Levandowski.” Levandowski’s lawyer, Neel Chatterjee, said Uber cannot renege on the indemnification agreement because it vetted the engineer before hiring him and knew there was reason to be concerned he had taken proprietary information from Google. He said Uber is just trying to wiggle out of its agreement to protect Levandowski “because it did not like the outcome” of his legal fight with Google.
“Uber’s assertion that Anthony did not disclose material information to Uber is false,” Chatterjee said in an email.
Uber’s filing fills in gaps of a dispute that largely played out behind the closed doors of private arbitration. It said Levandowski forfeited his indemnification when he asserted his constitutional right against self-incrimination and refused to testify in Google’s legal action against him.
In the months ahead, Levandowski may retaliate by pointing out that Uber was so eager to recruit him – including by offering buy the engineer’s driverless start-up Otto for US$680 million in stock – that it looked the other way when its vetting report raised flags about the information he took from Google. The due diligence report showed that months after Levandowski left his previous job, he possessed and destroyed “highly confidential Google proprietary information”, including source code, design files, engineering documents and software related to self-driving cars.