Jury awards $3.2 million to ex-Tesla worker for racial abuse
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — A federal jury has awarded nearly $3.2 million in damages to a Black former worker at a Tesla factory in California that has been at the epicenter of racial discrimination allegations hanging over the automaker run by billionaire Elon Musk.
The verdict reached Monday marks the second time former Tesla employee Owen Diaz has prevailed in trials seeking to hold Tesla liable for allowing him to be subjected to racial epithets and other abuses during his brief tenure at the pioneering maker of electric vehicles.
But the eight-person jury in the latest trial, which lasted five days, arrived at a dramatically lower damages number than the $137 million Diaz won in his first trial held in San Francisco federal court. U.S. District Judge William Orrick reduced that award to $15 million, prompting Diaz and his lawyers to seek a new trial rather than accept the lower amount.
“If you had just looked at this verdict without knowing the verdict in the first trial, you would say this is a big win. So, it’s still a big win,” Lawrence Organ, Diaz’s attorney, said Tuesday in an interview with The Associated Press.
Even so, Organ is still vying for a third trial under a motion he filed last week before the jury reached its verdict. The request for a mistrial is based on assertions that Tesla’s legal team prejudiced the jury by asking improper questions that raised doubts about Diaz’s mental state and cast him as a sexual harasser.
Tesla lawyers did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday.
If the motion for a mistrial is rejected, Organ told the AP he will file an appeal of the latest verdict that will also raise legal questions about Orrick’s decision to slash the damages awarded by the jury in the first trial.
The case, which dates back to 2017, centers on allegations that Tesla didn’t take action to stop a racist culture at its Fremont, California, factory, located about 40 miles (65 kilometers) southeast from San Francisco. Diaz, 53, alleged he was called the “n-word” more than 30 times, shown racist cartoons and told to “go back to Africa” during his roughly nine-month tenure at Tesla that ended in 2016.
The same Tesla plant, where the company has manufactured tens of thousands of cars, is in the crosshairs of a wide-ranging racial discrimination case brought last year by California regulators. The lawsuit field by the California Civil Rights Department (formerly known as California Department of Fair Employment and Housing) alleges Tesla turned “a blind eye” to rampant abuses that included likening Black employees to slaves and monkeys.
Tesla has adamantly denied the allegations made in state court and lashed back by accusing the agency of abusing its authority.
Musk, Tesla’s CEO and largest shareholder, moved the company’s headquarters from Silicon Valley to Austin, Texas, in 2021, partly because of tensions with various California agencies over the practices at the Fremont factory. Despite the strife, Musk, with California Gov. Gavin Newsom by his side, in February announced that an office complex in Palo Alto, California, will be Tesla’s engineering hub.