A federal court in San Francisco ordered Tesla to pay a former worker $137 million after he endured a hostile work environment and constant racist abuse at the company’s plant in Fremont, California, Bloomberg reports.
On Monday, the jury awarded an unprecedented $130 million in punitive damages and $6.9 million for emotional distress, an amount that was more than what the attorneys had asked for.
Owen Diaz, a former contract worker, who was hired at Elon Musk’s electric vehicle company through a staffing agency in 2015, accused Tesla of fostering a hostile work environment. In the lawsuit, he alleged that he faced discrimination “straight from the Jim Crow era.” According to his testimony in court, fellow employees used racial slurs towards him, told Black co-workers to “go back to Africa”, left racist graffiti in the restrooms, and a racist drawing in his workspace.
Speaking with the New York Times, Diaz expressed his relief that the lawsuit is over.
“It took four long years to get to this point,” he said. “It’s like a big weight has been pulled off my shoulders.”
Diaz said that his breaking point came when his son, Demetric, who he helped to procure employment with the company, was subject to the same racial abuse.
“My son watched his father being broken in front of him,” he explained.
J. Bernard Alexander of Alexander Morrison + Fehr LLP in Los Angeles and Larry Organ of California Civil Rights Law Group in San Anselmo, Diaz’s legal team, said the only way the case could proceed was because their client never signed one of Tesla’s mandatory arbitration agreements. The company uses the agreements to ensure that disputes among workers are handled in-house instead of in court.
“We were able to put the jury in the shoes of our client,” Alexander said “When Tesla came to court and tried to say they were zero tolerance and they were fulfilling their duty? The jury was just offended by that because it was actually zero responsibility.”
In a statement written by human resources VP Valerie Capers Workman and shared on the company’s website, Tesla responded to the verdict.
“While we strongly believe that these facts don’t justify the verdict reached by the jury in San Francisco, we do recognize that in 2015 and 2016 we were not perfect,” the statement read. “We’re still not perfect. But we have come a long way from 5 years ago. We continue to grow and improve in how we address employee concerns. Occasionally, we’ll get it wrong, and when that happens we should be held accountable.”
It has not been determined if Tesla will appeal the decision.