On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Essex County.
Dreier and Bilder. The opinion of the court was delivered by Bilder, J.A.D.
This case involves liability for inducing an employee to change jobs -- sometimes referred to as employee piracy. Plaintiff Avtec Industries, Inc. (Avtec) appeals from a judgment notwithstanding the verdict dismissing a claim for damages for the wrongful solicitation of one of its employees by defendant Sony Corporation of America (Sony). Sony cross-appeals from denial of its motion for summary judgment.
Plaintiff Avtec is engaged in the business of installing and servicing video and audio systems. It has rendered engineering and maintenance services to such companies as AT&T, Public Service Electric & Gas, Georgia Power and Morgan, Stanley & Co. In furtherance of its business it has non-exclusive dealership agreements with defendant Sony as well as a number of other large manufacturers such as General Instrument, Panasonic, Dukane and Techtronics. Its dealership agreement with Sony required it to maintain a warranty service and, at its own
expense, "to have at least one of its technically oriented personnel, with an electronics background, trained at a service school designated by [Sony]."
In March 1981 Avtec hired Serge Caleca as a video technician in its service department. He came to the job with two years of college training as well as prior work experience to which additional on-the-job training was added by Avtec. When Avtec entered into the agreement with Sony in January 1982, it sent four of its employees, including Caleca, to the Sony school. It also sent Caleca to three different Sony seminars during the following months.
The training received by Caleca and his co-employees was intended to increase their proficiency in servicing Sony products, but their duties were by no means limited to that endeavor. Avtec had serviced Sony products before the agreement and continued at about the same rate after becoming a dealer. Its service department noticed no change in the work load. On the average Caleca spent about two or three hours a week on Sony equipment.
When Caleca attended the seminars he apparently made a sufficiently favorable impression on the man responsible for Sony's technical training courses, Nicholas DiLello, that he called Caleca when one of the instructor positions became vacant. While at the seminars Caleca had expressed interest in working for Sony. A Sony instructor resigned in July 1982 and none of the 30 applicants obtained by newspaper ads were found to be qualified for the position. In August DiLello called Caleca to see if he would be interested. Caleca applied for the position and in September left Avtec and started working for Sony.
In his testimony Caleca gave a number of reasons for the change. His salary increased from $18,000 to $21,000. The fringe benefits were better. And he felt the opportunities for advancement were better. The preceding April a new man had been hired by Avtec as manager of the service department,
leaving Caleca with a feeling that with no engineering background he had "nowhere to go."
Caleca had no written contract with Avtec. It was undisputed he was an at-will employee. He left after about 20 days notice; Avtec did not deny his right to do so. It charged, however, that Sony, as a result of the dealership agreement held a position of trust with respect to Avtec and that it maliciously interfered with Avtec's contractual relationship with Caleca by hiring him away.
Before filing an answer to Avtec's complaint, Sony moved for summary judgment arguing that Avtec had failed to state a legal claim. It is from the denial of ...