UnIntellectual Property (UnIP): Trade Secret for Oil Spill Design Idea Disclosed

The United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida, in Tampa, granted Defendant BP’s Motion to Dismiss, among other things, Plaintiff’s claim for trade secret misappropriation of his “design for capping the oil well” following the BP Deepwater Horizon oil leak in 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico.  BP had welcomed proposals from the public via its website to fix the leak.  Plaintiff submitted one such proposal.  In addition, Plaintiff discussed the design with the Port of Tampa engineers and presented his idea to the Lieutenant Commander of the U.S. Coast Guard.  In doing so, Plaintiff allowed for collection of his drawings and other documents, as well pictures of his model, which were forwarded to BP.  Plaintiff also sent a video presentation of a working model.  Thereafter, BP confirmed that a similar approach had been considered.  When Plaintiff sent a letter demanding renumeration, BP refused noting the countless proposals.  Plaintiff sued under the Florida Uniform Trade Secrets Act (FUTSA), among other causes of action.

BP took the position that Plaintiff failed to take reasonable steps to protect the secrecy of his idea, with no documents marked or request for confidentiality by Plaintiff.  Although Plaintiff argued that dismissal was not warranted given the claims in the Complaint, the Court held that ““Clear authority” holds that an idea is not reasonably maintained in requisite secrecy if disclosed to a government official without an accompanying mechanism to maintain secrecy…Accordingly, by unconditionally disclosing his idea to Laurion, Kirincich, and Carroll, Laing failed to “take reasonable efforts to maintain [the] secrecy” of his idea. Similarly, Laing failed to treat the idea as a trade secret when he directed Carroll to present the idea to BP and included no statement, written or verbal, that the idea should remain confidential.”  As such, the Court dismissed the FUTSA count and held no trade secret existed due to lack of reasonable efforts to protect security (although dismissed without prejudice with leave to amend arguably).

Had Plaintiff taken the simple steps of marking documents Confidential and possibly requiring a Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA), the litigation may still be ongoing, though it would remain to be seen whether what he submitted would be deemed to be not generally know.  Yet another cautionary tale regarding the affirmative steps one must take to maintain secrecy, and thus be able to sustain a trade secret misappropriation lawsuit.

 

Laing v. BP Exploration & Prod. Inc., 8:13-CV-1041-T-23TGW, 2014 WL 272846 (M.D. Fla. Jan. 23, 2014).

 

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