Former Uber exec files for bankruptcy after losing $179M dispute with Google

Anthony Levandowski, the former head of Uber’s self-driving division, filed for bankruptcy protection in federal court on Wednesday, the same day he was ordered to pay Google $179 million to settle an ongoing contract dispute.

Levandowski filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Northern District of California. He lists $50 million to $100 million in assets, compared with $100 million to $500 million in liabilities, according to the filing.

“Anthony had no choice but to file for bankruptcy to protect his rights as he pursues the relief he is legally entitled to,” Levandowski’s attorney Neel Chatterjee of Goodwin Proctor LLP said in a statement to FreightWaves on Thursday.

San Francisco County Superior Court Judge Ethan P. Schulman on Wednesday upheld an arbitration panel’s massive award and ruling in favor of Google (NASDAQ: GOOGL) in December.

The panel’s ruling found that Levandowski and a colleague, Lior Ron, engaged in unfair competition and breached their contracts with Google’s self-driving arm, Waymo, when they poached away engineers to found their own autonomous trucking startup, Otto, in 2016. Six months later, Uber (NYSE: UBER)  bought the startup for nearly $700 million.

Ron, who stayed with Uber, recently settled with Google for $9.7 million.

However, Levandowski’s petition to have the arbitration panel’s immense award vacated failed.

“This arbitration was not about trade secrets but about employees leaving Google for new opportunities and an engineer being used as a pawn by two tech giants,” Chatterjee said. 

In February 2017, Google filed suit against rival autonomous trucking startup Uber and Levandowski, alleging the two conspired to steal trade secrets to incorporate into Uber’s own self-driving efforts. Uber agreed to pay Google roughly $244 million to settle the suit in February 2018.

While Uber had an indemnification agreement to pay Levandowski’s legal fees and judgments as part of his contract, “whether Uber is responsible for such indemnification is subject to a dispute” between the two parties, according to Uber’s recent SEC filing.

“Google fought tooth and nail to take back every penny paid to Anthony for his multi-billion dollar contributions, and now Uber is refusing to indemnify Anthony despite explicitly agreeing to do so,” Chatterjee told FreightWaves in a statement.

In 2018, tech pioneer Levandowski co-founded Pronto.AI, developing a new aftermarket safety system for commercial trucks called Copilot, a far cry from the Level 5 autonomous vehicle technology he had been developing for the past 15 years.

Anthony Levandowski and John Kingston, editor-at-large of FreightWaves, discussed the future of autonomous vehicle technology at FreightWaves’ Transparency event in Atlanta in May 2019. Photo: FreightWaves

“We’ve made some great improvements in the last 10 years, but we’ve kind of hit the ceiling where it’s difficult to generalize circumstances that exist on the road and have computers be able to handle all of [the possible issues] that happen,” Levandowski said at FreightWaves’ Transparency freight tech conference in Atlanta in May 2019.

Three months later, Levandowski was forced to step down as Pronto.AI’s CEO after federal prosecutors charged him with 33 counts of theft and attempted theft stemming from allegations he downloaded 14,000 documents from his Google computer to his personal laptop before he left the company. Most of the documents centered around Google’s advancements in LiDAR sensor technology, according to the indictment. Levandowski denies the allegations.

Robbie Miller took the reins as Pronto.AI’s CEO in late August 2019. 

The three-year arbitration between Google and Levandowski started before Pronto.AI was founded, Alan Dunton, managing director of Shift Communications Inc., told FreightWaves on Thursday.

The judgment does not impact Pronto’s financial health, which remains strong as it continues to make great progress building the industry’s best driving safety systems,” Dunton said. “The company’s leadership remains supportive of Anthony as he contends with these personal matters.”

Read more articles by FreightWaves’ Clarissa Hawes