Sasol drops suit against engineer

01 November 2010 - 01:29 By BONGANI MDAKANE and KIM HAWKEY
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After going all out to stop a former employee selling its trade secrets, Sasol Technology has dropped a R25-million damages claim and settled for an interdict instead.

Just over a week ago, the company, which forms part of energy and chemicals group Sasol, and long-time employee Arno de Klerk, agreed to end the acrimony that at one point prompted Sasol to hire private investigators to raid his home and office.

The dispute arose over a book that De Klerk, who became an associate professor at the University of Alberta, Canada, after leaving Sasol in 2008, co-authored and edited at Sasol's request in 2007.

Sasol did an about-turn in 2008, and instructed De Klerk to stop working on the book because it was worried he was leaking secret information about its "world-leading" and "extremely valuable" technology, known as the Fischer-Tropsch process, which competitors could use against it.

When Sasol learnt the book was published early last year, it sued De Klerk for R25-million damages, accusing him of being a disgruntled former employee intent on sabotaging the company "for his own benefit".

Although De Klerk admitted he had been unhappy working as a process engineer at the company, he denied any vendetta and hit back with a R5-million counter-claim for harm to his reputation.

"Life is too short for vendettas," De Klerk said last week. He said he had handed over all rights to the book in 2008 after concluding a contract with the publisher once he had received a written go-ahead from Sasol.

He claimed Sasol had painted him as a liar, a criminal and a failed scientist. In addition, he was "humiliated" by the raid to try to find copies of the book at his home.

He said he felt the raid was extreme and violated his dignity.

The dispute finally came to a head on October 19 when their agreement was made an order of the court by the Johannesburg High Court.

Sasol successfully interdicted De Klerk from revealing any information about Sasol's Fischer-Tropsch process and similar technologies, while both sides dropped their multimillion-rand claims against each other.

Publication of the book has subsequently been stopped, and copies, that had already been distributed are to be recalled.

Sasol spokesman Nothemba Noruwana said the company was happy with the judgment in what it called a "unique" case.

"Sasol is satisfied that the settlement reached ... protects its legitimate interests," Noruwana said on Friday.

De Klerk said that he was glad the matter was over.

"I feel partially vindicated, but if I had more money, I would like to have taken them to court because I did not do any of the things that they accused me of," he said.

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