Retail giant Walmart is facing a two billion dollar lawsuit. The plaintiff, a Silicon Valley company called Zest Labs, says that Walmart employees stole their trade secrets, later implementing the technology for Walmart’s benefit without crediting or compensating Zest Labs.
Estimates suggest that in excess of $85 billion worth of fresh food goes to waste every year in America. The reasons for this waste are complex and various, but Zest Labs felt that they had devised innovative methods for minimizing “fresh food shrink.” The company began developing the system in 2010, and by 2015, Walmart had expressed an interest in the technology. Under an agreement, Zest Labs began sharing its discoveries and innovations with representatives from Walmart. The disclosures included demonstrations and presentations that highlighted proprietary information that Zest Labs had developed over the course of their work in the previous five years.
Zest Labs alleges that Walmart participated in numerous trials over a two-year period. Then, the company abruptly pulled out of the arrangement in November 2017. In the complaint, Zest Labs executives describe being “stunned” by the sudden about-face, and their consternation only grew four months later when Walmart announced its new Eden project.
Zest Labs employees felt that the similarities between their technology and Walmart’s new Eden system were too significant to ignore. They argue that “Walmart used its years of unfettered access to plaintiffs’ trade secrets, proprietary information, and know how to steal the Zest Fresh technology and misappropriate it for Walmart’s own benefit.” The complaint goes on to say that “Walmart integrated the Zest Labs technology into Eden without authorization and without compensating Zest Labs.”
While this particular case represents something of a David vs. Goliath situation, no organization of any size can afford to neglect the protection of its intellectual property. This includes valuable trade secrets that help one company differentiate itself from the competition. Whenever confidential information or trade secrets are shared, it is advisable to have an enforceable non-disclosure agreement signed first. This not only protects the company that is sharing its proprietary information but also provides them with additional leverage should court action become necessary.