After two years and a ton of Twitter drama, it looks like Tesla’s suit against ex-technician, Martin Tripp, has hit a major development. Nevada District courts ruled late Thursday that Tripp—who was fired from the automaker in late 2018 on claims that he’d plundered trade secrets—had also fallen afoul of the state’s cybersecurity laws as a result.
Tripp first made headlines as the Gigafactory employee turned anonymous “saboteur” who leaked documents that detailed the sheer hell inside Tesla’s Nevada HQ as the company struggled to produce its Model 3 vehicle. Not long after, the company hit Tripp with a massive lawsuit on the grounds that he “unlawfully [hacked] into the company’s confidential and trade secret information” and doled it out to third parties, while making “false claims” about this trade intel to news outlets that made the Gigafactory conditions look way worse—and more dangerous—than they actually were.
The legal battle only got messier from there, but here’s the broad strokes of what followed. Tripp fired back against the roughly $400 billon dollar company with a massive defamation suit of his own, claiming that he was just blowing the whistle on horrendous conditions after fellow engineers, supervisors, and even Elon Musk had completely ignored these problems when he tried to raise them internally. Tesla, meanwhile, kept up the claims that Tripp’s documents were exaggerated, later asking him to pay $167 million in damages to recoup for the stock market losses that allegedly resulted from the reporting based on his leaks. Reports emerged alleging that the company tapped Tripp’s phone lines and tracked his every move in order to discredit him in the weeks leading up to the suit; Musk dismissed those allegations as “nuts.”
Tesla accused short sellers of funding Tripp’s longtime litigation.
Tripp fired his lawyers, choosing to represent himself in court.
As with anything involving Musk, its been a messy, blustery affair. Even in the drab legalese of a court filing, Judge Miranda Du couldn’t help but point out how utterly bizarre this saga has been [emphasis ours]:
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.
What ultimately sealed the deal for the Nevada courts, however, wasn’t the media fracas or alleged plunging stocks—and on the stocks, the judgement colorfully states that “there are so many tenuous links in the causal chain between Tripp’s actions and any drop in Tesla’s stock price that no rational jury could find Tripp caused it,” a major win for Tripp.
Instead, according to the docket, Tripp’s alleged “hacking” of Tesla’s trade secrets fell on the wrong side of the Nevada Computer Crimes Law, or NCCL. Originally, Tripp disputed these claims on the grounds that because he was an employee during the time of the initial leaks, he “had authority to access the information.” But because the NCCL also outlaws “unauthorized use of data,” he could ultimately be held responsible for what he did—“especially considering Tripp admitted he was not authorized to use the data in the way he did,” the documents note.
“I’m not really happy or thrilled. I don’t think anybody really would be if they were in my shoes. I’m happy that they dropped the $167 million part of it [related to the stock price],” Tripp told Gizmodo over FaceTime. “of course I’m not happy about them dropping my entire counter-claim. I think there’s a lot of merit to it. They’re siding with Musk. It’s evident in the judge’s ruling.”
On the NCCL charges, Tripp said, “firstly I don’t think I violated any laws like that. 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.”
We’ve reached out to Tesla for comment and will update if we hear back.
The ruling is embedded in full below:
Updated to include statements from Martin Tripp, and to reflect that the case as a whole remains ongoing. Additional reporting by Bryan Menegus.