Any time business goes bad, you can expect lawsuits to follow; the cleantech industry is no exception, and the last year saw plenty of court action.
While we’re all ready to embrace 2009, we couldn’t help but take one more look back at 2008 and draw up this list of the most memorable lawsuits in cleantech. The Top 10 include three from electric car maker Tesla, six involving large solar manufacturing firms and one weirdo wildcard. Who’s going to turn to the courts in 2009?
1). Emcore’s Class Action: The latest, slipped in just before the turn of the new year, involves a proposed class-action lawsuit against Emcore, a solar and broadband company, which claims that Emcore had overstated the size of its order backlog and artificially inflated its share price. The news sent the company’s shares plunging from a 52-week high of $15.70 per share on Jan. 2, 2008 to close at $1.08 per share Friday, a year later. What a way to start out 2009.
2). Magna vs. Tesla: Tesla Motors had more than its fair share of lawsuits in 2008. First of all Magna Powertrain, which designs, tests and makes powertrains, filed one against the electric-sports-car startup in February, alleging that Tesla owed it $5.6 million for unpaid transmission work.
3). Tesla vs. Fisker: Tesla then filed one against Fisker Automotive in April, claiming that Fisker had violated trade secrets, among other charges. Fisker CEO Henrik Fisker called the lawsuit “nonsense” and successfully filed for arbitration. An arbiter, Judge McDonald, in November ruled in Fisker’s favor, leaving Tesla with legal fees and costs of $1.14 million, according to the Fisker announcement.
4). Vespremi vs. Tesla: In July, Tesla was hit with a proposed class-action lawsuit filed by David Vespremi, its former director of public relations, who had been laid off in 2007. The lawsuit, which alleges that the company violated its terms of employment, is seeking claims of up to $75,000 for a group of current and former employees.
5). GT Solar’s Shares Sink on LDK News: In August, several law firms announced that they had filed proposed class-action suits against the Merrimack, N.H.-based solar-equipment manufacturer. The lawsuits came after a customer, LDK Solar, announced it would buy equipment from one of GT Solar’s competitors the day after the company’s initial public offering, dramatically shrinking GT Solar’s share price.
The complaints claim that GT Solar failed to fully disclose the risks of its relationship with LDK, “including the fact that the company was at imminent risk of losing out on a contract for future orders from LDK due to delays in shipping production equipment to LDK.” An amendment further claims the company had been warned of the danger and covered it up. The lawsuits have since been consolidated, and Irving S. Braun, who bought shares of GT Solar before the LDK announcement, was selected as the lead plaintiff.
6). Oerlikon vs. Sunfilm: Swiss solar-equipment manufacturer OC Oerlikon in June said it was suing Sunfilm, a customer of competitor Applied Materials, for allegedly infringing on its patent for micromorph tandem-cell technology. While the lawsuit didn’t target Applied Materials directly, analysts have said it could potentially shake up the thin-film market if it ends up discouraging amorphous-silicon competitors. In August, Applied Materials reported that the European Patent Office had taken its side in a provisional decision. The decision isn’t final, however, so the lawsuit continues.
7). Ellenburg vs. JA Solar: A group of shareholders, including lead plaintiff Lee R. Ellenburg III, last month sued JA Solar, a Chinese solar-cell manufacturer, claiming it had violated U.S. federal securities laws by failing to report its July purchase of a $100 million note from Lehman Brothers, which went bankrupt, contributing to a third-quarter loss for JA Solar. JA Solar said the allegations were “groundless and without merit.”
8). Timminco vs. Sood: Toronto-based metallurgical-silicon company Timminco sued a fund manager, Ravi Sood, and his firm, Lawrence Asset Management, for libel after Sood cast doubt on the company’s technology, The Globe and Mail reported in June. A search for updates on the Ontario Superior Court of Justice web site turned up no information.
9). LDK Solar Suit Continues: This suit was filed in 2007, but it promises to provide years of industry-watcher enjoyment. In October of 2007, a former financial controller for LDK Solar, Charley Situ, alleged that the company had misstated its silicon inventory, a serious charge during a shortage of solar-grade silicon. LDK shares took a 50-percent plunge, even though the company denied any misrepresentation, and a group of law firms filed lawsuits seeking class-action status for investors. Shahpour Javizdad, a shareholder who claims he lost $1.5 million, was selected as the lead plaintiff in January.
In April 2008, LDK announced that the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission had ended its investigation of the company after an independent audit in December found “no material errors” in its accounting. The company tried to get the case dismissed, but in May, a U.S. District Judge rejected the motion. The cases have all been moved to the same court, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, but the plaintiffs were still fighting for class-action status as of August.
10). Riches Fails to Win Money: A bizarre and ridiculous lawsuit against a dozen defendants, including greentech venture capitalist Vinod Khosla and Steve Fambro, CEO of electric-vehicle startup Aptera, came to an end in February, when it was dismissed by a federal district court. A South Carolina prison inmate, Jonathan Lee Riches, sought $43 million from Khosla, accusing his fund of investing in prison buildings, and $7 million from Fambro for failing to give him a long-sleeved shirt.
Riches had filed more than 160 cases in just one court by August, with other defendants including Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, the Magna Carta, Hank Aaron’s baseball bat, Fidel Castro, Google, the Vatican, George Orwell, the Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.