A federal judge denied a motion to move a legal showdown between Uber and Waymo into private arbitration, according to a court document filed Thursday evening, a decision that sets the stage for a public, bare-knuckle trial between the two companies.
It was a setback for Uber, which has been accused of stealing valuable technology from Waymo, the self-driving-automobile unit spun out of Google. Uber had pushed for arbitration, usually a less expensive and faster process — and one that neither takes place in front of a jury nor becomes part of the public record.
At the heart of the suit is Anthony Levandowski, a star engineer and a veteran of self-driving technology who Waymo has claimed stole technology from Google before leaving to form Otto, his own autonomous-vehicle start-up. Waymo has argued that Uber conspired with Mr. Levandowski to use those stolen files in Uber’s self-driving-car designs after Uber purchased Mr. Levandowski’s start-up for $680 million. Uber has denied the accusation.
But the already-trying civil process for Mr. Levandowski — who is not being sued — has now raised the specter of a criminal case. In a separate order, the judge overseeing the dispute suggested that a federal prosecutor review the matter.
In making its case for arbitration, Uber pointed to a previous arbitration clause from Mr. Levandowski’s employment contract with Google.
In a statement, Waymo said that justification was “a desperate bid by Uber to avoid the court’s jurisdiction.”
“We welcome the court’s decision today, and we look forward to holding Uber responsible in court for its misconduct,” the statement said.
It was yet another turn in a high-profile case between two technology giants who have made huge bets that self-driving automobiles will dominate the transportation landscape of the future.
The case began in February and has proceeded in fits and starts, partly because Mr. Levandowski has resisted providing information on the files he has been accused of stealing. Mr. Levandowski has exercised his Fifth Amendment right to avoid self-incrimination, which has prevented Uber and Waymo from obtaining certain information and documents in the continuing case.
Judge William Alsup of United States District Court for the Northern District of California, who is presiding in the case, ruled that moving it to private arbitration could make it even more difficult to establish a clear timeline of events in the case.
“As a practical matter,” Judge Alsup wrote, “it is hard to imagine how consolidating proceedings as to Levandowski and defendants, whether here or in arbitration, could alleviate these difficulties.”
Judge Alsup also referred the case to the United States attorney for an investigation into a possible theft of trade secrets, according to a court filing. Such an investigation could lead to criminal charges for Mr. Levandowski.
“We remain confident in our case and welcome the chance to talk about our independently developed technology in any forum,” Niki Christoff, an Uber spokeswoman, said in a statement.