A Riverside (California) entrepreneur has won a $17.5 million judgment from a former employer who broke into his personal computer because his boss suspected he was pilfering company secrets, court documents show.
Dallen Trealoff, who with his wife, Joanne, founded Eclipse Recreational Vehicles Inc. six years ago, was working as a sales manager for national RV manufacturer Forest River Inc. in 2002. According to court records, the company allegedly removed the hard drive from the laptop Trealoff owned.
Forest River, in turn, countersued Trealoff, alleging he was storing confidential information about Forest River with an eye toward starting his own company.
A San Bernardino County jury last week, after a seven-week trial, ruled in Trealoff's favor on almost all counts, and a Superior Court judge awarded Trealoff just over $17.5 million from Forest River and its president and chief executive officer, Peter Liegl. The judgment includes $15 million in punitive damages.
Trealoff was hired in 1995 as sales manager for Elkhart, Ind.-based Forest River, which was then a start-up company. Working out of a factory in Rialto, he was in charge of developing a sales network in 11 Western states.
Forest River was bought out by Berkshire Hathaway Inc. in 2005.
Trealoff said Forest River personnel did not deny helping themselves to his laptop, which included sensitive personal financial data.
According to court records, Trealoff used his spare time to develop a software program that kept track of Forest River's sales and production information, and that was what the company was after.
Trealoff said in an interview it was the only time in his long career in the RV industry he's been in a lawsuit, and his tenure with Forest River is the only time he's ever been fired from a job.
"Big business has a philosophy of putting an employee in court and making him spend the money on legal fees," Trealoff said. "But no boss should get to abuse an employee."
Liegl could not be reached to comment. One of his attorneys, Erin Donovan, said post-trial motions are being prepared and an appeal was likely. Donovan would not elaborate.
Forest River's countersuit entered into a gray area, especially in California, where attorneys who practice employment law agree that companies usually have a tough time proving an ex-worker used privileged information.
Jeff Tidus, Trealoff's attorney, said Trealoff never signed a noncompete agreement with Forest River, and he added no employer can tell a worker he can't use the information gleaned from years of experience.
"He'd been in the RV business for 20 years before (Forest River) hired him, and exactly why they hired him," Tidus said of Trealoff. "You can't vacuum clean what's in his head."