A black former Tesla contract worker who refused a payout of $15 million last year in damages for severe racial harassment has been awarded $3.2 million by a federal jury in San Francisco.
Owen Diaz, who who worked as a elevator operator at Tesla’s factory in Fremont, California, sued the automaker in 2017 for violating a California law that prohibits employers from failing to address hostile work environments based on race or other protected traits. The first jury awarded Diaz $137 million in damages.
In June 2022, US District Judge William Orrick agreed with the jury that Tesla was liable but significantly reduced the award to $15 million, giving Owen Diaz two weeks to decide whether to accept the reduced award.
Diaz refused the deal and opted for a new trial on damages, seeking nearly $160 million. However, a federal jury in San Francisco on April 3 ordered Tesla to pay about $3.2 million to the plaintiff – $175,000 in damages for emotional distress and $3 million in punitive damages designed to punish unlawful conduct and deter it in the future.
The former Tesla contract worker, who had been hired by a staffing agency, accused the EV maker of failing to act when he repeatedly complained to managers that employees at the Fremont factory frequently used racist slurs and drew swastikas, racist caricatures and racial epithets on walls and work areas.
Bernard Alexander, a lawyer for Diaz, argued that his client’s “outlook on the world has been permanently changed,” as a result of the harassment. “That is what happens when you take away a person’s safety,” he added.
During a testimony last week, Diaz tearfully recounted various incidents during the nine months that he worked at the Fremont factory. He said the job made him anxious and affected his relationship with his son, who also worked at the plant.
In response, Tesla’s lawyer, Alex Spiro, said Diaz was a confrontational worker who had exaggerated his claims of emotional distress. He added that the plaintiff’s lawyers failed to demonstrate any serious, long-lasting damage caused by Tesla. “They’re just throwing numbers up on the screen like this is some kind of game show,” Spiro said, according to Reuters.
Lawyers for Tesla said there were inconsistencies in Diaz’s testimony and repeatedly raised the fact that he did not lodge written complaints to supervisors. However, the plaintiff testified that he verbally complained to managers numerous times and discussed his complaints with Tesla human resources officials.