- The move is an endorsement for lidar technology, which Tesla CEO Elon Musk has previously dismissed.
- Bill Berry, currently Tesla's head of litigation, who joined in October 2020 and previously spent time working for Google, is expected to head the Tesla department but not assume the role of general counsel according to people familiar with the matter.
- Tesla previously lost three general counsels over the course of a year in 2018 and 2019.
Tesla's longstanding vice president of legal and acting general counsel, Al Prescott, has left the electric vehicle and renewable energy company to join Luminar, a lidar start-up.
The move is noteworthy in many ways. For one, Tesla CEO Elon Musk has long insisted that lidar technology, or light ranging and detection sensors, is too expensive and not necessary for development of autonomous vehicles. Prescott's move to Luminar, where he will serve as chief legal officer, is an endorsement of the technology, however.
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Prescott said in a statement to CNBC:
"Luminar has pioneered safety-critical technology that will power our autonomous future. As someone who's dedicated my career to automotive safety and innovation, I'm looking forward to helping drive Luminar to the next level and fulfill the mission to make transportation safer for everyone."
Bill Berry, currently Tesla's head of litigation, who joined in October 2020 and previously spent time working for Google, is expected to head the Tesla department but not assume the role of general counsel according to people familiar with the matter.
Another change at the top of Tesla's legal department could prove challenging at a time when the company is facing new suits, federal probes and trials that were long-delayed due to the impact of Covid on U.S. courts.
Tesla previously lost three general counsels over the course of a year in 2018 and 2019. In December 2018, Todd Maron, Musk's top lawyer for the previous four years, left the company. Dane Butswinkas took over but his tenure lasted only about two months, and Jonathan Chang took over as general council but left in December 2019. The company did not hire another top lawyer after that, and Prescott served as vice president of legal and acting general counsel.
Last year, Tesla was supposed to go to trial trial over shareholder allegations that Musk forced his electric vehicle company into acquiring an allegedly illiquid solar business, SolarCity, for more than $2 billion in order to benefit himself and family members, was postponed by more than a year. The trial's original kickoff date was for March 2020, and is now expected to commence by this summer.
On March 8, 2021, a shareholder named Chase Gharrity filed a lawsuit accusing Musk of exposing Tesla to potentially billions in liabilities and market losses through his erratic posts on Twitter, even though he and Tesla had previously struck a settlement agreement with the Securities and Exchange Commission that requires the CEO to get tweets preapproved by counsel if they may contain information that's material for Tesla shareholders.
In the new complaint, Gharrity calls out Tesla's board for failing to appoint general counsel at Tesla who can keep Musk compliant with securities law and the terms of their SEC settlement agreement.
According to his LinkedIn profile, Prescott provided "guidance to Tesla's executives and Board of Directors," and directed "all legal operations in North America, Europe, and Asia," helping the company through challenges in the automotive and energy industries.
Prescott's name and face may be familiar to close followers of the company -- he kicked off Tesla's 2020 annual shareholder meeting and battery Day. He had also signed correspondence on behalf of Tesla in response to the federal vehicle safety authority (NHTSA) which has the authority to investigate safety complaints from the public, and to mandate recalls if they deem a vehicle or component unsafe.
Before he joined Tesla, Prescott had a long history in automotive, including as senior counsel for autonomous vehicles at Uber, handling regulatory, litigation, commercial, privacy and cybersecurity matters there. He also worked as an attorney at Ford Motor for more than a decade after spending a year as a crash safety engineer there.
Luminar also announced that it's hired a new vice president of investor relations, Trey Campbell, a 20-year veteran of Intel. Campbell held the same role at the semiconductor company before jumping to the lidar maker. Intel's Mobileye unit is a Luminar partner.
Luminar is a Peter Thiel-backed venture, and now a public company that began trading under the ticker symbol LAZR on the Nasdaq in December 2020, after a deal with SPAC Gores Metropoulos.
Following Luminar's personnel announcement, its shares rose more than 15% to close at $18.93 on Wednesday. Tesla shareholders were unfazed, sending the company's stock up more than 3% on Wednesday to close at $744.12.
Correction: Tesla shares closed at $744.12 on Wednesday. An earlier version misstated the figure.