A U.S. civil proceeding accusing a Canadian bridge and infrastructure firm of plotting to steal trade secrets was dismissed last month after the company and its affiliates told the court in a stipulation that they were not in possession of the confidential information and would not pursue it by improper means.
Acrow Corp. of America, a 65-year-old global design and engineering firm specializing in prefabricated steel bridges, had accused Atlantic Industries Limited and AIL International Inc. — both of New Brunswick — of conspiring with their American affiliate Big R Manufacturing to gain secret information on Acrow’s bridge components.
According to the complaint, filed in U.S. District Court for the State of Colorado, Acrow alleged the defendants sought to have a Big R employee tour, under false pretences, a galvanizing plant where Acrow’s components were stored in order to catch a glimpse of them.
But in a cringe-worthy twist, a string of emails discussing the plans — some allegedly written by Big R chief executive Cameron C. Klein — appear to have been unintentionally forwarded to the galvanizing plant by a Big R employee.
The fumble occurred on April 25, when an employee of Big R sent an email request for a tour of the galvanizing plant, Acrow’s court filings state.
Attached to that email was a series of messages in which Klein allegedly stated that he had been working with the two Canadian firms to develop a panel bridge system that could be manufactured in the U.S.
The firms had attempted to “reverse engineer” Acrow’s bridge components, Klein wrote, according to the filing, but the project ran into a snag when they were unable to determine the closely guarded identity of the company’s steel supplier.
“I was wondering if you could swing by and do a plant tour under the cover that we would like to see their operation for future work,” one email states. “On your tour, you should be able to walk the entire site and innocently ask ‘what are these panels’ and walk over and see the marking (or even get a photo).”
By examining the components for “mill markings” prior to galvanizing — a process that conceals them — the defendants had hoped to obtain the steelmaker’s identity, Acrow alleged. Upon receiving the emails — which include Google aerial maps marked with red arrows indicating possible locations of the components — the galvanizing plant alerted Acrow, prompting the lawsuit.
“Defendants intend to use this unlawfully obtained information to gain a competitive advantage in the steel bridge building industry,” the Acrow filings stated.
Neither Klein, nor a lawyer for the defendants responded to requests for comment. The allegations have not been proven in court.
Peter Mesheau, vice president of marketing for Atlantic Industries Limited, declined to comment on the details of the complaint but said his company was determined to continue to seek business in the U.S. market.
Acrow is “a good sized company and they do good stuff and they are protecting their turf,” he said in a phone interview. “We’ll continue to compete in the U.S. or wherever.”
Acrow, which agreed to the stipulation, said it was happy to go back to business. “AIL Group and Big R agreed they weren’t in possession of the identity of our steel supplier and wouldn’t make attempts to obtain that information, so we’re satisfied,” said Michael Nicodema, a lawyer for Acrow.
Acrow’s bridges are produced entirely in the U.S. with American steel and therefore qualify for lucrative government contracts under Washington’s Buy America provisions. In order to protect this advantage over its competition, “maximum secrecy” is used to shield the identity of its steel supplier, which produces the material in facilities not accessible to the public and transports it on trucks that “are virtually impossible to trace,” Acrow’s court documents state. Employees are bound by confidentiality agreements and computers are password protected.
“Should Acrow’s supply sourcing trade secrets be misappropriated by a competitor, Acrow would suffer a huge competitive blow that would be impossible to quantify in monetary terms,” the company said in its complaint.
The lawsuit was filed May 15. In a stipulation between the parties filed with the court on May 28, the defendants declared they were not possession of the identity of the steel supplier or any other trade secrets or confidential information belonging to Acrow. They also affirmed that they would not attempt to gain such information through improper means but would “continue to compete with Acrow and others in the marketplace in a lawful manner.”
In response to the stipulation, the court dismissed the case.
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