A family-owned Colorado aerospace company is suing aviation giant Boeing, claiming it stole intellectual property, produced flawed tools that could have endangered astronauts and pilots and eliminated records to cover it all up.
The lawsuit by Wilson Aerospace in LaPorte was filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Seattle, where Boeing was founded and previously based. Boeing’s gains from the theft of Wilson’s intellectual property amounted to hundreds of millions of dollars, attorneys for Wilson said.
Among the claims made by the lawsuit is racketeering.
“The lawsuit talks about the various people in and outside of Boeing that Boeing was working with to develop this enterprise that was essentially targeting small tool providers, we believe, to basically bait them along and steal their intellectual property,” said Christopher Warmbold, an attorney with Chicago-based Meyers and Flowers.
The firm is one of five from across the country that are representing Wilson, which has been in business for about three decades.
“Boeing has not only stolen our intellectual property and damaged our company’s reputation but has used the technology incorrectly and at the expense of astronauts’ safety, which is beyond despicable,” David Wilson Jr., president and Founder of Wilson Aerospace, said in a statement.
Boeing dismissed Wilson’s accusations.
“This lawsuit is rife with inaccuracies and omissions. We will vigorously defend against this in court,” Boeing said in an email.
A chief allegation by Wilson involves one of its flagship products, the third generation of its Fluid Fitting Torque Device, which it said Boeing wanted to use to mount engines onto the rocket of NASA’s Space Launch System.
After working with the smaller company from 2014 to 2016 and gaining access to its proprietary information, Boeing abruptly ended Wilson’s involvement in the project, according to the lawsuit. Boeing “misappropriated and infringed” Wilson’s intellectual property and then gave work on the launch system to Wilson’s competitors, the lawsuit said.
Boeing had hit a bottleneck in trying to figure out how to install the engines on the rocket and was facing a critical design review by NASA, Warmbold said. “That’s when they approached Wilson for a solution and he provided it, but saw no benefit whatsoever.”
Boeing, one of the largest aerospace companies in the world, “routinely muscles around and takes advantage of smaller suppliers like Wilson by stealing and infringing their most sensitive IP,” the lawsuit alleges. The complaint refers to Boeing’s $615 million agreement with the Department of Justice in 2006 to settle civil and criminal allegations that it improperly used competitors’ information to win contracts from the Air Force and NASA.
Wilson’s lawsuit accuses Boeing of a litany of wrongs, including falsifying information about an earlier version of Wilson’s torque device used on the International Space Station. Wilson designed the tool to NASA’s specifications, but Boeing approved design and manufacturing changes without consulting the other company and blamed Wilson for problems with the device, according to the lawsuit.
“Boeing had accused them in public forums of having made a defective tool, and being honest folks, they took the position of, ‘Gee we must have done something wrong,’ ” said Denver attorney Lance Astrella, whose firm is working on Wilson’s case.
“They put a heck of a lot of time and effort into figuring out what they were doing wrong, which was nothing,” Astrella said.
The lawsuit contends that leaks on the space station and the Columbia space shuttle were likely linked to the problems with the torque device for which Boeing allegedly falsified calibrations. The lawsuit accuses Boeing of identifying a tool Wilson made for the Starliner spacecraft as being made by someone else.
David Wilson is a graduate of the University of Colorado-Boulder. His son, a software engineer, and his wife work at the company. Astrella said Wilson has developed tools for General Motors, for nuclear plants and refineries. He worked with NASA on devices to allow astronauts to exit the Mir space station, operated by Russia, in case of emergencies.
Wilson, working with Lockheed Martin, invented a tool that allowed access to the Hubble telescope when there were difficulties with it, Astrella said.
Wilson began working with Boeing in the late 1990s. Astrella said the company started looking into Boeing’s actions after getting some information in 2019.
The lawsuit claims that Boeing passed off people from some of Wilson’s competitors as Boeing employees during demonstrations and discussions of Wilson’s designs and work that were part of a confidential agreement. Boeing eliminated references to Wilson in its records to cover up its misappropriation of Wilson’s work, the lawsuit said.
Because Boeing stole Wilson’s intellectual property without receiving full instructions on how to properly build, install, and use it, several of the products built by Boeing have “critical safety flaws that put lives at risk,” Wilson maintains.
The Colorado company’s reputation and financial opportunities have been damaged by Boeing’s actions, the lawsuit said. Wilson is seeking a trial and damages, including the amount of money the company said Boeing made from its proprietary designs and work.
Astrella acknowledged that Wilson suing Boeing is kind of like David going up against Goliath. “That’s why we put together some of the best trial lawyers in the country on our team.”
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