Tesla whistleblower countersues over Elon Musk’s ‘defamatory’ statements

The former Tesla employee who was sued for allegedly hacking and leaking trade secrets has filed a counterclaim against the company over potentially defamatory comments made by CEO Elon Musk. Martin Tripp, who worked at Tesla’s Gigafactory in Nevada until June, says in the new filing that a number of comments Musk made about him in the past few weeks — some from a company-wide email, others in various statements to the press, and some from a handful of the CEO’s tweets — are false, caused emotional distress, and have even led to “numerous threats to his personal safety.”

Tripp also claims in the countersuit that he has been forced to relocate, has experienced health problems like anxiety and nausea, and has trouble sleeping as a result of Musk and the company’s actions over the last month. The counterclaim also includes new details about the information Tripp originally shared with the media. The former Tesla employee is seeking $1 million plus punitive damages.

“Our client, Martin Tripp, has been wronged by Tesla in more ways than one,” Robert D. Mitchell, an attorney representing Tripp, says in a statement to The Verge. Mitchell says Tesla made “several bewildering allegations against Mr. Tripp” in its lawsuit, and that the company “has made numerous, highly-publicized false and defamatory statements about Mr. Tripp to the media.”

“In an effort to restore his name, Mr. Tripp has decided to fight back against Tesla’s allegations, and we are privileged to aid him in his fight,” Mitchell says. Tesla did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication. The company is scheduled to report its second quarter earnings and production numbers on Wednesday.

Tesla and Musk’s public back-and-forth with Tripp began on June 17th, during a time when the company was in a mad dash to meet its goal of producing 5,000 Model 3s in one week. The CEO told his employees in a late-night email that an employee “had conducted quite extensive and damaging sabotage to [the company’s] operations.” This employee, Musk wrote, made “direct code changes to the Tesla Manufacturing Operating System” and exported “large amounts of highly sensitive Tesla data to unknown third parties.”

Tesla sued Tripp later that week in Nevada District Court, alleging that he was behind the misdeeds that Musk had called out in the email. Tripp, according to Tesla, wrote software to hack the company’s manufacturing system, improperly gave the information he found to “third parties” and to the media, but also made false statements about the company’s inner workings.

Tesla argued that Tripp was the source of information for what the company believes was a misleading Business Insider story about its struggles during production of the Model 3. In particular, that story — which Business Insider sourced to “internal documents” seen by the publication — focused on allegations that Tesla was generating an excessive amount of scrap material and that the company was using damaged battery modules in some of its Model 3s. The company said in its lawsuit that Tripp “exaggerated the true amount and value of ‘scrap’ material that Tesla generated during the manufacturing process” and denied claims about the punctured batteries.

In his countersuit, Tripp goes into further detail about why (and how) he believes Tesla used these punctured battery modules. He states that he was told by multiple Tesla colleagues that a “teach pin” had been mistakenly left on a robot that was used to make battery modules at the Gigafactory. As the robot grabbed the battery modules, Tripp claims he was told that this pin dented or punctured the outer plastic coating. Tripp says “approximately 1,173 battery modules,” were damaged as a result.

Tripp says he was told by other Tesla technicians that, instead of discarding these damaged modules, they instead were “reworked” by “squeezing an adhesive into the punctured battery cell and then gluing a piece of clamshell over the adhesive.” This merely gave the appearance that there was no damage, but it did nothing to mitigate the risk of fires caused by the punctures, Tripp claims. Tripp then says he used Tesla’s manufacturing operating system to track the affected modules over a period of a few days.

“The tracking system showed that the dented and/or punctured battery modules, instead of being discarded, were being used in Model 3 vehicles,” the countersuit claims. Tripp eventually determined that 732 of the damaged battery modules “were used in Model 3 vehicles that had been shipped to or were in the process of being shipped to customers.”

In the immediate aftermath of Tesla’s lawsuit against Tripp, company representatives claimed that Tripp was going to return to the Gigafactory and “shoot the place up,” saying they had heard it from a friend of Tripp’s. In response, Tripp told The Washington Post that the claim was “absurd” and said that local law enforcement found “no credible threat.” Tripp further addresses this particular incident in his countersuit. He argues that Tesla wasn’t able to provide police with a name of the “friend of Mr. Tripp” and that the company “provided inconsistent responses to law enforcement” about whether the caller was female or male.

Weeks after Tesla sued Tripp, Musk directed a number of tweets at journalist Linette Lopez, the author of the Business Insider story. He said Lopez “published several false articles about Tesla” and asked her if she “compensate[d] or promise[d] to compensate Martin Tripp for inside information about Tesla?” Tripp states in his countersuit that he “has never received any compensation from Ms. Lopez, nor has Ms. Lopez ever offered Mr. Tripp any compensation or promise of compensation,” and he argues that Musk’s tweets falsely imply that he was bribed by the journalist. Tripp says Musk spread “false allegations and/or implications” to 22 million followers that were “defamatory and were published with negligence.”

“Tesla has used strong-arm tactics and a defamatory smear campaign in an effort to bury the disconcerting information Martin Tripp learned as a Tesla employee and to discredit Mr. Tripp before the general public,” Mitchell says. “By filing its lawsuit against Mr. Tripp, Tesla has now forced the issues to the forefront, and Mr. Tripp looks forward to defending himself before a jury of his peers by showing that what he witnessed and repeatedly reported at Tesla is, in fact, true.”