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US judge rejects Uber bid to move Waymo trade secret dispute to arbitration

A contentious lawsuit between Uber and Alphabet's Waymo unit will not move to a legal private forum, a U.S. judge said Thursday, dealing a blow to the ride-hailing company.

Uber had argued that an arbitrator, not a jury, should decide the merits of Waymo's February lawsuit alleging that a key engineer had stolen trade secrets from Waymo and brought them to Uber. The judge, William Alsup, also partially granted an injunction against Uber in a sealed opinion because it contains confidential information, according to the court docket.

Alsup ordered the California court case be referred to the U.S. attorney for investigation of the possible theft of trade secrets, offering no position on whether a prosecution is warranted.

Waymo put out a statement on the ruling almost immediately after the ruling on the motion.

"This was a desperate bid by Uber to avoid the court's jurisdiction," a Waymo spokesman said in a statement. "We welcome the court's decision today, and we look forward to holding Uber responsible in court for its misconduct."

Uber issued a brief reply, while it noted the sealed preliminary injunction order prohibited wider remarks.

"It is unfortunate that Waymo will be permitted to avoid abiding by the arbitration promise it requires its employees to make," an Uber spokesperson said. "We remain confident in our case and welcome the chance to talk about our independently developed technology any forum."

The company also declined to comment on the referral to the U.S. Attorney's office.

Alphabet's self-driving car unit, Waymo, has sued Uber, claiming that the ride-hailing start-up is using key parts of Waymo's self-driving technology. The fight centers around an engineer named Anthony Levandowski, who was deeply involved in Google's self-driving car initiative before leaving to found a start-up, Otto, which went on to be acquired by Uber.

Waymo's lawyers have asserted that Levandowski stole documents from Alphabet, and that Levandowski was already negotiating with Uber before he left Alphabet.

Levandowski has tried to stay out of the fray, looking to invoke his Fifth Amendment rights. He also said he would recuse himself from work related to the disputed technology. But an Uber engineer recently testified that Levandowski communicates with the new self-driving boss on a day-to-day basis.

The case comes at a time when the self-driving car business is fiercely competitive — and any setback could impact companies' abilities to test their cars on the road and beat rivals to market. Uber has called the case a "baseless attempt to slow down a competitor."

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