Tesla has been ordered to pay $137 million in damages to a former Black worker who accused the company of turning a blind eye to discrimination and racial abuse at the company’s EV plant in Fremont California, the Washington Post has reported. A San Francisco federal court jury awarded the judgement — reportedly one of the largest in an individual race discrimination employment case — to Owen Diaz, an elevator operator who worked as a contract employee in 2015 and 2016.
In the lawsuit, Diaz alleged that he faced discrimination “straight from the Jim Crow era,” in which he was subjected to racial slurs. He alleged that Tesla employees left drawings of swastikas, racist graffiti and offensive cartoons around the plant, while supervisors neglected to halt the abuse. “Tesla’s progressive image was a façade papering over its regressive, demeaning treatment of African-American employees,” according to the lawsuit.
The jury awarded Diaz $6.9 million for emotional distress, but the majority, $130 million, was punitive damages against Tesla. “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,” said the lawyer for Diaz, Lawrence Organ.
“It took four long years to get to this point,” Diaz told the New York Times. “It’s like a big weight has been pulled off my shoulders.”
In response to the verdict, Tesla downplayed the allegations in a blog post written by human resources VP Valerie Capers Workman. “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.”
Tesla added that it was responsive to Mr. Diaz’s complaints, firing two contractors and suspending another. She said that while the facts didn’t justify the verdict, the company was “not perfect” in 2015 and 2016, “but we have come a long way.” The company has yet to say whether it plans to appeal.
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