A Black former Tesla employee who claimed he was harassed with racial epithets and demeaning attacks during his time there five years ago was awarded a $136.9 million judgement on Monday by a federal jury.
Former Tesla plant worker Owen Diaz, 53, said at trial that he was called the N-word and harassed on a daily basis while he was employed as an elevator operator there for nine and a half months starting in 2015. As the Associated Press reports, Diaz alleged — and an eight-person jury believed him — that employees drew swastikas around the Fremont plant, including in bathrooms, and that one supervisor drew a pickaninny cartoon on a bale of cardboard. (Diaz provided a photo of this.)
A witness at the trial, another former worker, said that fellow employees had smeared feces on his golf cart.
Diaz was one of several Black workers who brought harassment suits against Tesla back in 2017, another being Diaz's son, Demetric, who also came to work at the plant at the age of 19. Demetric's suit has since been resolved, but there is a larger class-action discrimination case being brought against Tesla, which grew out of those cases, on behalf of 2,000 to 3,000 employees.
As Protocol reported in July, the pending case also being brought by Diaz's attorney — Larry Organ of the California Civil Rights Law Group — alleges that Black employees and other employees of color and female employees were subjected to epithets, references to the factory as "The Plantation," and systematic discrimination that included the loss of advancement opportunities.
Of the jury's verdict, Diaz told the Chronicle, "They’re putting Elon Musk on notice to clean up his factory. They heard the things we had endured."
And as he told the New York Times, "It took four long years to get to this point. It’s like a big weight has been pulled off my shoulders."
The jury awarded Diaz $6.9 million for emotional distress, and $139 million in punitive damages — amounts which Tesla may still appeal in court or try to have lowered. Diaz testified that part of the pain he endured was having to watch his son also being harassed on the factory floor, and not being able to do anything about it. "My son had to watch his father be broken. ... It mentally traumatized my son," Diaz told the Chronicle.
Tesla had first tried to have the suit thrown out because Diaz was not an employee — he had come to the plant through a staffing agency. But as Organ explained to Protocol, Tesla makes full-time employees sign arbitration agreements, which contract employees don't have to sign. The larger class action is being brought by contract employees, and those for whom the company can't locate signed arbitration agreements.
"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 tells the Times.
Tesla has said that it responded to Diaz's complaints at the time that he made them, firing two contractors and suspending another for their behavior, and the company does not believe the verdict is justified.
The Times obtained an internal email from Tesla HR exec Valerie Capers Workman who wrote, "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. 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."
It remains to be seen if Tesla will appeal the decision.
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images