Business

Jury orders Tesla to pay $137 million over racist treatment

“It took four long years to get to this point.”

Michael Short
Contract employees Owen Diaz, right, and his son, Demetric Diaz, in Oakland, California, April 10, 2018. Michael Short / Bloomberg


A jury ordered Tesla to pay $137 million to Owen Diaz, a Black former employee who accused the carmaker of ignoring racial abuse he faced while working there, his lawyer, Lawrence Organ, said late Monday.

“It’s a great thing when one of the richest corporations in America has to have a reckoning of the abhorrent conditions at its factory for Black people,” Organ, of the California Civil Rights Law Group, said in an interview.

The decision by the jury, in federal court in San Francisco, was reported earlier by Bloomberg News. Tesla’s lawyers did not immediately provide comment.

In an interview, Diaz said he was relieved by the jury’s decision.

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“It took four long years to get to this point,” he said Monday evening. “It’s like a big weight has been pulled off my shoulders.”

Diaz said he worked as an elevator operator at Tesla’s factory in Fremont, California, for about a year in 2015 and 2016. There, he said, a supervisor and other colleagues repeatedly referred to him using racial slurs. He also said employees had drawn swastikas and scratched a racial epithet in a bathroom stall and left drawings of derogatory caricatures of Black children around the factory. Despite repeated complaints, the company did little to address the behavior, he said.

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“It’s not like they were removing the offensive behavior, they would just let people keep adding and adding,” he said.

After deliberating for about four hours, the jury agreed with Diaz’s assertion that Tesla had created a hostile work environment by failing to address the racism he faced, Organ said. The vast majority of the award — $130 million — was punitive damages for the company. The rest was for emotional distress Diaz suffered, Organ said.

Despite the abuse he himself faced, Diaz said, he reached a breaking point when he witnessed similar racist epithets directed at his son, Demetric, who secured a job — his first — at the company with Diaz’s help.

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“My son watched his father being broken in front of him,” Owen Diaz said.

In an internal email to Tesla staff obtained by Organ and shared with the Times, Valerie Capers Workman, a human resources executive, downplayed the allegations in the lawsuit.

“In addition to Mr. Diaz, three other witnesses (all non-Tesla contract employees) testified at trial that they regularly heard racial slurs (including the N-word) on the Fremont factory floor,” she wrote. “While they all agreed that the use of the N-word was not appropriate in the workplace, they also agreed that most of the time they thought the language was used in a ‘friendly’ manner and usually by African-American colleagues.”

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The company, she wrote in the email, was responsive to Diaz’s complaints, firing two contractors and suspending another. Tesla does not believe the facts justify the verdict, she wrote, but acknowledges that the company was “not perfect” in 2015 and 2016. “We’re still not perfect,” she added. “But we have come a long way.”

Owen Diaz said in the suit that he was left feeling “demeaned, disrespected and devalued.” He sued Tesla alongside his son and another Black former employee, but only the elder Diaz’s claims made it to trial.

It was not immediately clear whether Tesla planned to appeal the decision.

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