NEW YORK, March 28 — A trial kicked off in San Francisco federal court yesterday to determine how much money Tesla Inc must pay to a Black elevator operator who a jury determined was subjected to severe racial harassment while working at the electric auto maker’s flagship assembly plant.
A lawyer for plaintiff Owen Diaz told a jury during opening statements that the racist slurs, graffiti and threats his client faced were part of a “plantation mentality” at the Fremont, California factory where Black workers were treated as second-class citizens.
“A person should be able to come to work and not be harassed or degraded while they’re doing their job,” the lawyer, Bernard Alexander, said, reading from an email that Diaz wrote to supervisors.
The trial is scheduled to last five days. Last year, a judge slashed the US$137 million (RM605.6 million) verdict that the jury awarded in 2021 to Diaz, one of the largest ever in a US workplace discrimination case, to US$15 million. Diaz’s lawyers rejected the lower payout and opted for a new trial on damages.
Alex Spiro, a lawyer for Tesla, is scheduled to give an opening statement later yesterday. The company has said it does not tolerate discrimination and had moved last year to reduce the original jury award to no more than US$600,000.
As at the last trial, Diaz and several employees and managers at the Fremont plant are expected to testify.
In his 2017 lawsuit, Diaz accused Tesla of failing to act when he complained to managers that employees at the factory frequently used racist slurs and scrawled swastikas, racist caricatures and epithets on walls and workstations.
Diaz sued Tesla for causing him emotional distress under a California law prohibiting employers from failing to prevent hostile work environments based on race and other protected traits.
The jury in 2021 awarded Diaz nearly US$7 million in compensatory damages for emotional distress, and US$130 million in punitive damages, designed to punish unlawful conduct and deter it in the future.
US District Judge William Orrick last year reduced the compensatory damages to US$1.5 million and the punitive damages to US$13.5 million. He said that sum acknowledged the pervasive harassment Diaz faced while reflecting that he had worked at the factory for only nine months and had not alleged any physical injury or illness.
Employment discrimination cases rarely yield verdicts of more than US$1 million, let alone nine-figure sums. The US Supreme Court has said punitive damages typically should be no more than 10 times compensatory damages.
Tesla also faces claims of tolerating widespread race bias at the Fremont plant in a class action in California state court and a separate lawsuit by the state’s civil rights watchdog making similar allegations. Both cases are still in early stages.
The outcome of Diaz’s trial will not directly affect those lawsuits or other court cases, but could encourage workers to file new lawsuits against the company as it battles mounting challenges to its dominance of the electric car market. — Reuters