Waymo’s Lawsuit Against Uber Going to Federal Prosecutors

The judge presiding over Waymo’s lawsuit against Uber asked federal prosecutors to investigate the claims in the case.

byStephen Edelstein| PUBLISHED May 12, 2017 10:10 AM
Waymo’s Lawsuit Against Uber Going to Federal Prosecutors

The legal battle between Waymo and Uber over self-driving car trade secrets escalated again on Thursday, when the judge presiding over the case asked federal prosecutors to investigate the matter.

U.S. District Court Judge William Alsup made that recommendation without taking a position on whether criminal prosecution is warranted, according to Bloomberg

Earlier Thursday, Alsup also issued two rulings that work against Uber. One denies the company's request to shift the case to closed-door arbitration, the other places restrictions on Uber's self-driving car program.

Waymo accuses Uber of benefitting from self-driving car trade secrets stolen by a former employee, Anthony Levandowski. He is accused of downloading 14,000 Waymo files before leaving the company to form a startup, Otto, that was bought by Uber last year. Levandowski, who is pleading the Fifth Amendment in the case, was given a prominent role in Uber's self-driving car program, but was shifted to another position recently as the lawsuit placed increased scrutiny on him and Uber.

At a May 3 hearing, Judge Alsup said it was likely that Levandowski downloaded the files, but that Waymo hadn't produced a "smoking gun" showing that Uber had benefitted from the information. That proved to be a brief reprieve for Uber, as Alsup's two Thursday rulings both work against the ride-sharing company.

Uber previously hoped to send the case to arbitration, arguing that it only concerned actions Levandowski took while he was a Waymo employee, and so should be covered by the arbitration clause in his employee contract. Waymo is pursuing arbitration with Levandowski, separate from the Uber lawsuit. In his ruling, Alsup said Uber had "no agreement with anyone to arbitrate the case."

Waymo previously asked Alsup to issue an injunction against Uber that would essentially shut down its self-driving car program, to prevent Uber from using the allegedly-stolen trade secrets. In an order that was not made public, Alsup called for some restrictions on Uber's self-driving car work, but not a complete shutdown. He said he would issue a decision publicly once both sides agree on which portions should be redacted to protect confidential information.

The two rulings mark a setback for Uber, but Alsup's referral of the case to federal prosecutors takes things to a whole new level of drama. While he took no position on the issue, Alsup's actions indicate he believes there is at least the possibility that a crime was committed, and that's what prosecutors will try to find out. 

Uber already faces one federal probe, over its use of "Greyball" software to circumvent government regulators.