The plaintiff’s lawyer says this may be the largest racial discrimination award in U.S. history.
A federal jury in California has ordered Tesla to pay a Black contractor nearly $137 million after the man filed a lawsuit alleging workplace harassment and rampant racial discrimination.
According to National Public Radio, the lawsuit was filed by Owen Diaz, who worked as an elevator operator in Tesla’s Fremont, California, factory.
In Fremont, Diaz says he and other Black Tesla employees routinely heard—and were called—the “n-word.” Diaz claims to have been told to “go back to Africa” by a coworker.
His lawsuit also asserts that Tesla’s Fremont facility was effectively covered in racist graffiti, which included both offensive terms and derogatory pictures.
While Diaz says he was initially excited to work for Tesla, instead of finding an engaging, welcoming work-place, he encountered a “scene straight from Jim Crow.”
Although Tesla employees are typically subjected to stringent arbitration agreements that prevent them from taking the company to court, Diaz worked as a contractor and was thus able to file a lawsuit.
But before deciding to file a legal complaint, Diaz tried to fix things himself: he told supervisors about discriminatory treatment in the Fremont facility, and reported the misbehavior to contracting companies Citistaff and nextSource, too.
However, neither Tesla nor the contracting companies took action.
Larry Organ, one of Diaz’s attorneys, told National Public Radio he and his client are happy that the world now knows the truth about Tesla’s working culture.
“I’m gratified that this jury saw the truth and that they sent a message to Tesla to clean up its workplace,” Organ said.
The jury’s award, adds N.P.R., included $6.9 million in emotional damages—and an incredible $130 million in punitive damages, which are awarded to punish unusually egregious misconduct.
Organ told N.P.R. he believes Owen’s award is the single-largest racial-discrimination-related settlement for a single plaintiff in all of U.S. history.
“Owen and I both hope that this sends a message to corporate America to look at your workplace and, if there are problems there, take proactive measures to protect employees against racist conduct,” Organ added. “It is happening, and we need to do something about it.”
Valerie Capers Workman, Tesla’s “vice president of people,” released a statement admitted that an internal investigation found eyewitnesses who corroborated Owens’ account—but said that use of the “n-word” was intended to be friendly, rather than insulting.
While saying the award amount is inappropriate, Workman acknowledged that Tesla has had its problems, but is actively working to improve.
“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. We’re still not perfect. But we have come a long way from 5 years ago,” Workman said. “The Tesla of 2015 and 2016 is not the same as the Tesla of today.”