Court Fight Over Exotic Tree Oil Secrets
ARLINGTON, Va. (CN) - A biofuel company claims in court that diesel fuel producers stole its method of harvesting vegetable oil from seeds of the African jatropha tree by secretly recording the process with a smart phone during a meeting.
Plant Oil Powered Diesel Fuel Systems sued Waste Streams International, D.C. Biodiesel, National Biofuels Holdings, Wendell Jenkins and the man who allegedly recorded the meeting by holding his smart phone under the table - John O'Brien - in Federal Court, alleging misappropriation of trade secrets and conspiracy.
In the complaint, Plant Oil Powered Diesel, or POP, describes itself as "a path-breaking biofuel company that is the first, and so far, only company to receive the formal approval of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ... to use and sell vegetable oil, like the stuff you buy at the grocery store, as fuel at 100 percent concentration in select diesel engines."
The company says the EPA's approval of its vegetable oil fuel is expressly limited to plant oil extracted from the seeds of tropical jatropha trees, and it has poured "money, creativity, initiative, courage and other resources" into developing its jatropha oil supply.
POP Diesel claims that O'Brien, Jenkins and D.C. Biodiesel, which is in the costly business of turning vegetable oil into biodiesel, arranged a meeting with it, during which time POP Diesel's representatives spent two hours telling O'Brien its confidential trade secrets regarding jatropha oil supplies in Africa.
The parties entered into a nondisclosure agreement, but that didn't stop O'Brien from recording the meeting on his smart phone, according to the complaint.
"Upon information and belief, Mr. O'Brien electronically recorded and broadcasted the meeting conversation to a third party using his Blackberry, iphone, smart phone, or other electronic device, which he held turned on beneath the table," the complaint states.
"Since Mr. O'Brien allegedly engaged in this activity surreptitiously, without the consent of POP Diesel's representative, and with the intent to make unauthorized disclosure of POP Diesel's information to third parties, this act constituted a breach of the NDA-NCA and it constituted an improper means of acquiring, using or disclosing POP Diesel's confidential, trade secret information."
The complaint adds: "After the meeting, Mr. O'Brien used, without POP Diesel's assent, and made unauthorized disclosures of POP Diesel's information with the knowledge of the other defendants and on behalf of himself and them to plan and try to raise money to establish jatropha cultivation, harvesting, and oil extraction operations in Africa. This activity worked contrary to POP Diesel's interests and harmed them because it drew and threatens to draw investment and financing capital away from POP Diesel's own jatropha programs in Africa."
D.C. Biodiesel turns vegetable oil into biodiesel by a molecular reconstruction process called transesterification, the complaint states. The process is costly and takes time; POP Diesel's advantage in the market is the less-expensive jatropha oil that it can sell as diesel engine fuel at 100 percent concentration.
The company wants the diesel fuel makers to pay it royalties, compensatory damages and punitive damages to be determined at trial.
POP Diesel is represented by Claude Convisser, its president and general counsel.