After years of legal skirmishes, four leading Silicon Valley companies are scheduled to go on trial next month on claims of conspiring to keep their employees down.
A 43-year-old programmer who helped set in motion a class-action lawsuit against the companies and became one of its five class representatives will not be present in the San Jose courtroom. He was shot and killed by the police last December.
The programmer, Brandon Marshall, died in circumstances that remain murky. He was agitated and combative, escalating a confrontation with sheriff's deputies by assaulting one, who shot him in the chest.
Mr. Marshall's death is just one of many ways in which the case has shaped up to be a Silicon Valley drama unlike any other.
The antitrust lawsuit pits 64,613 software engineers against Google, Apple, Intel and Adobe. It accuses the companies of agreeing not to solicit one another's employees in a scheme developed and enforced by Steven P. Jobs of Apple. In their drive for control, the companies undermined their employees' opportunities to get better jobs and make more money, the court papers say.
Settlement talks have accelerated and people close to the case say that barring a last-minute snag, a deal is imminent.
The companies certainly have good reasons to make the case disappear. They do not want to open themselves up to weeks of damaging testimony replete with emails and other evidence the plaintiffs plan to present, many of which have already been made public and been chewed over by the press.
Then there is the uncertain calculus of a potential jury's makeup at a moment when Silicon Valley companies are regarded with increasing distrust by some of the people who live there.
The plaintiffs say the lost wages in the case add up to $3 billion. If a jury agreed, that sum would be tripled under antitrust law. Three smaller defendants settled last year for $20 million, but that was before the suit won the all-important class-action certification.
But in case there is indeed a trial, the remaining defendants have aggressively tried to control what information would be presented. In a recent court filing, for example, the companies asked that any testimony about Mr. Jobs's volatile personality be excluded.
For the defendants, these tactics are part of a difficult exercise in public relations. A spokesman for Intel said the company did not believe it had done anything illegal. Representatives for the other three companies declined to comment.
For the plaintiffs, though, the stakes are personal.