- Three Chinese companies are suing Liebherr Mining & Construction Equipment — asking a federal judge to rule that they did not conspire to rip off designs for a Liebherr mining truck and build a copycat version in China.
The new filing in U.S. District Court in Newport News brings the dispute regarding Liebherr's truck designs to federal court, even as a lawsuit and several years of litigation are still unresolved in Newport News Circuit Court.
The three Chinese firms — China Space Sanjiang Group (CSSG), Wuhan Sanjiang Import Export Co., and Aerospace Heavy Industry (AHI) Ltd. — contend that Liebherr's Circuit Court lawsuit unfairly "lumped" them into a "purportedly long-running conspiracy."
The Chinese companies assert that if there was a scheme to steal Liebherr mining truck designs, they knew nothing about the plot when a Detroit engineering firm contacted them in late 2011 about manufacturing mining trucks.
"If such a conspiracy existed, CSSG, Wuhan and AHI were not a part of it," said the Chinese firms' June 15 federal court filing, written by George H. Bowles with the Virginia Beach office of the Williams Mullen law firm.
Moreover, the three Chinese firms contend that when they agreed to build the truck in early 2012, no one had told them about the already-pending lawsuit in Newport News Circuit Court over the designs.
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The three firms said in their filing that even if the schematics they got from the Detroit firm "contained Liebherr trade secrets," they can't be held liable for any "misappropriation" because, among other things, they "did not have the requisite knowledge at the time."
In their filing, CSSG, Wuhan and AHI want U.S. District Judge Henry Coke Morgan to issue a declaratory judgment that they "did not engage in a … conspiracy to build mining trucks using Liebherr's information," that they "were never party" to any such agreement, and have no liability to Liebherr.
Liebherr's attorney, Brett A. Spain with Willcox and Savage in Norfolk, did not return a phone message seeking comment.
The dispute concerns mining dump trucks that stand 29-feet tall — nearly triple the height of a typical dump truck — and can carry 400 tons of payload. The Liebherr trucks are built at a factory on Chestnut Avenue, off Interstate 664 in Newport News.
In its Circuit Court lawsuit, initially filed in 2010, Liebherr contended that six former workers at its Newport News plant conspired with Detroit Heavy Truck Engineering (DHTE) to steal thousands of designs, with DHTE then providing those designs to Chinese companies.
"This case involves industrial espionage of a serious and brazen nature," said an amended complaint filed in 2013 by Liebherr. "It involves the wholesale theft of trade secrets from a United States manufacturing facility and the use of these trade secrets to help multiple Chinese competitors design a competing product."
Liebherr's suit asserted that the documents — from designs to vendor information to factory information — allowed the trucks to be built "in a fraction of the time, at a fraction of the cost, and with a fraction of the manpower as could be accomplished by lawful means."
Seeking $40 million in damages, Liebherr's lawsuit also contended that a previous Chinese manufacturing group — known collectively as "Elite" — had initially conspired with DHTE to build the mining truck.
But Liebherr's lawsuit said that when Elite got out of the business in 2011, DHTE approached CSSG about taking over the production of the truck.
In their June 15 federal court filing, CSSG, Wuhan Sanjiang and AHI say no one from DHTE or elsewhere mentioned the pending lawsuit at the time. It wasn't until February 2013 — more than two years after the initial lawsuit — that Liebherr named CSSG and Wuhan as defendants, with AHI expected to be named later his year.
Elite — made up of Ceri Heavy Industrial Equipment Co. and the MCC Heavy Industrial Equipment Co., operated as a single entity in Xiangtan, China — has not filed any responses to Liebherr's lawsuit since it was filed.
But Liebherr dropped the lawsuit in April, only three months before a month-long jury trial was expected to take place in Newport News Circuit Court.
The company dropped the case under a provision called a "non-suit," which allows a case to be resurrected if it's re-filed within six months. But though all sides expect that to happen, the three Chinese companies want to force the issue earlier.
They contend in their federal filing that the ongoing dispute is hurting their "efforts to complete the development and marketing of its trucks" — and that they must now decide whether to go forward, abort or hold off on plans for it.
"Recent media coverage of the aborted and unresolved Liebherr Suit threatens to injure CSSG, Wuhan and AHI's reputation with potential customers in North America and elsewhere," the complaint said. "Liebherr's threat to refile has had a chilling effect on CSSG, Wuhan and AHI," placing them "in a state of legal limbo under which they are held hostage by the threatened litigation."