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The Thin Line Between Whistleblower and Thief

June 26, 2018

Posted in Business Litigation, Employment Law, Intellectual Property

The whistleblower is the good guy in the white hat and the thief is the bad guy in the black hat, right? Tesla and the courtroom are the scenes where this battle of good and evil will play out. Tesla is suing a former employee for theft of trade secrets, breaking into computer systems and playing the role of the saboteur. The former employee, Martin Tripp, says he’s been framed. He says he’s the good guy in the story. Such is the stuff that movies and lawsuits can be made of.

Tripp denies tampering with any internal systems, according to the Washington Post, stating he’s in fact a whistleblower outing Tesla for its practices, including installing dangerous batteries in its cars. Tesla’s attorneys state he’s a former technician at Tesla’s Gigafactory battery plant in Nevada.

He’s accused of creating software to help him to steal confidential photos and videos of Tesla’s manufacturing systems. The attorneys state Tripp worked for Tesla from October to June, when he was confronted with evidence of his alleged wrongdoing. They also accuse him of being a disgruntled employee who was denied a promotion and who gave untrue statements about the company, including allegations of defective battery use, to the press.

Tripp confirmed to the Post he gave information to Business Insider for a story about the company’s raw material waste. He claims he did so because hundreds of Tesla Model 3 electric automobiles were produced with defective, punctured batteries. Tesla denies that claim.

Tripp claims he’s seeking an attorney and legal protection as a whistleblower, someone who exposes illegal or unethical acts by an organization to a government body or to the public. Tesla states he blew no whistles, he just made false and exaggerated claims to hurt the company while hacking its computer system.

Company head Elon Musk introduced more intrigue and maybe more than a little paranoia when he emailed employees to tell them about alleged sabotage by Tripp, that they should “be extremely vigilant” and “There are a long list of organizations that want Tesla to die.”

The Post gained access to emails between Tripp and Musk and they could be the basis of dramatic dialog between the two, with Musk writing, “You’re a horrible human being,” and Tripp responding, “Putting cars on the road with safety issues is being a horrible human being!”

Tripp’s back story would include his move to Nevada to work for Tesla and Musk, a person he looked up to. “I was always drooling about the Teslas and wanting to buy one. And I was living the mission: to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy,” he told the Post. Tripp claimed he became disillusioned after seeing the waste being produced by the plant, its unsustainable practices and alleged lying by Musk to investors.

How this story will play out, we don’t know because we’re only in the opening act, but theft of trade secrets and the proper handling of whistleblowers are two legal issues you should take seriously. It may be dramatic, but it’s not a show.

If you have any questions about whistleblower protections or what to do to prevent the theft of trade secrets or what to do after they’re lost, contact our office so we can talk about it, answer your questions and discuss how we can help.