A Nevada district court has ruled in favor of Tesla in a lawsuit against a former employee who allegedly stole sensitive company-owned information and distributed it to third parties in 2018. Tesla representative allege that the information was presented in a manner that made working conditions in the Gigafactory in Nevada out to be more dangerous than it actually is.
The district court ruled that the former employee, Martin Tripp, violated cybersecurity laws by taking the data from Tesla’s servers. When the incident occurred, Tesla described Tripp as an anonymous “saboteur” and disgruntled employee. When the leak was traced back to him, he was fired.
The company also accuses short sellers of Tesla stock (TSLA) of financially backing Tripp in the legal battle. He initially had a team of attorneys, but reportedly dismissed them in order to represent himself.
Tripp filed a countersuit against Tesla, claiming that the company defamed him and tapped his phone lines in order to track his activity and build a case against him. Tesla denies the allegations.
Tripp reportedly also got into very public fights with CEO Elon Musk, including a series of emails that were leaked to the Guardian. It’s not unusual for Musk to exchange heated words with others on social media and is especially well-known for his ill-considered accusations against others on Twitter. His ongoing public feud with Blue Origin chief Jeff Bezos is especially well-known, as Elon Musk is also the CEO of Blue Origin rival SpaceX. However, this particular public fight drew unusual commentary in court documents filed by presiding judge Miranda Du:
Tripp, a single, non-executive-level employee, got into a very public dispute directly with the CEO of his former employer that generated its own news cycle. That is unusual. And in addition to exchanging threatening emails, both Tripp and Musk were attempting to influence public perception of the other by emailing their dispute directly to reporters, most notably at the Guardian.
The lawsuit asked $167 million to compensate for the beating that TSLA took in the stock markets in the wake of news of the alleged poor working conditions at Tesla’s factory. However, the court did not rule that the information leaked by Tripp was in any way responsible for the drop in the stock value. The ruling indicates that it felt that the links between his actions and the stock price drop were too flimsy.
The court found that Tripp’s actions were in violation of the Nevada Computer Crimes Law, which bans unauthorized use of data. It also dismissed his defamation lawsuit. In doing so, it rejected his defense that, as an employee, he was authorized to access the information. According to the ruling, he was not authorized to distribute that information to third parties or the public. In an interview with Gizmodo, Tripp denied any wrongdoing and defended his actions:
“I saw something wrong and I felt it was my duty to give that evidence to the public. I think there were public safety concerns.”
Tesla has not yet issued a statement on the ruling. Tripp has not indicated whether he will appeal the ruling.