Texas company wins $134M from utility owner PacifiCorp
A Salt Lake City jury has awarded a Texas company a $134 million judgment against PacifiCorp, which does business in Utah as Rocky Mountain Power, for pilfering trades secrets that it used to construct the Currant Creek power plant near Mona.
USA Power of Dallas was awarded $18.2 million in damages against PacifiCorp, which was accused of stealing the company's trade secrets and breaching a confidentiality agreement. In addition, the jury found the Salt Lake City law firm of Holme Roberts & Owen and attorney Jody Williams liable for $3.2 million for breaching their fiduciary duties to USA.
The jury awarded another $112.5 million in damages because PacifiCorp unjustly profited from the theft.
The verdict came late Monday evening after a five-week trial, said Peggy Tomsic, a Salt Lake City attorney who represented USA Power. "It was a grueling process, but the jury was attentive throughout. They took notes and paid close attention to the evidence."
Michele Beck, who oversees the Committee of Consumer Services that serves as the voice for residential and small-business owners in utility rate cases, doubts that PacifiCorp will be able to pass on the cost of the judgment to customers.
"I don't believe it would be allowed [by Utah's utility regulators]," Beck said. "And even if they were to try, it is something that we would vigorously oppose."
In 2002, USA Power, through its Spring Canyon Energy subsidiary, approached PacifiCorp about building a natural gas-fired power plant in Juab County, court documents say. Once the plant was built, USA planned to sell it to PacifiCorp.
As part of the negotiations, USA Power required PacifiCorp to sign a nondisclosure pact before it would allow the utility to review the inside design and engineering details for its proposed Spring Canyon plant, court documents say.
Six months later, though, PacifiCorp cut off talks, indicating it wanted to put the project out to bid, court documents say. And on Nov. 3, 2003, PacifiCorp awarded the project to itself and then later received the go-ahead from the Public Service Commission.
PacifiCorp built its Currant Creek plant less than one mile away from the site proposed by USA Power. The Texas company said that the Currant Creek facility had characteristics that were virtually identical to those of its own proposed plant.
In a prepared statement, PacifiCorp termed its dispute with USA as "longstanding," noting that the events surrounding the case took place from 2002 to 2004, prior to the PacifiCorp being taken over by billionaire Warren Buffett's MidAmerican Energy Holding Co.
"Clearly, the company disagrees with the verdict and we will aggressively pursue all avenues of appeal," PacifiCorp said. "As such, we can provide no further comment at this time."
Tomsic said that after PacifiCorp abruptly terminated negotiations that it "almost simultaneously" hired USA's law firm, Holme Roberts & Owen and attorney Williams, to assist it in the development of its own power plant.
"The jury found that PacifiCorp's development resulted from misappropriating USA Power's trade secrets and breach of the confidentiality agreement, and that Williams and HRO breached their fiduciary duties by helping PacifiCorp in that effort," Tomsic said.
A spokesman for Holme Roberts and Owen said the firm had no comment on the verdict.
Tomsic, along with co-lead counsel James Magleby and Eric Schnibbe at the Salt Lake law firm of Magleby & Greenwood, had a long fight getting the case before a jury.
After they filed the complaint on behalf of USA in 2005, 3rd District Court Judge Tyrone Medley ruled in PacifiCorp's favor on all but one claim. But on May 14, 2010, the Utah Supreme Court issued a 5-0 opinion that reversed that ruling and sent the case back for a jury trial.