Tesla has been ordered to pay a whopping $137 million to a former contract employee who sued over racist abuse he endured at the company's factory in Fremont, Calif. Elevator operator Owen Diaz said he worked at the factory for about a year up to 2016, during which fellow employees called him racial slurs, left swastikas and a racial epithet in a bathroom stall, and drew derogatory caricatures of Black children. He said his son endured similar experiences at the company, too, and Tesla did little in response. "It's not like they were removing the offensive behavior, they would just let people keep adding and adding," Diaz tells the New York Times.
His suit argued the abuse left him feeling "demeaned, disrespected and devalued." Diaz's attorneys with the California Civil Rights Law Group said the case only reached trial at federal court in San Francisco because Diaz hadn't signed a mandatory arbitration agreement, which requires Tesla employees to resolve disputes without a public trial. Shareholder activist Nia Impact Capital has asked the board to study the effects of the agreements on workplace culture, arguing they may hide issues including discrimination, per CNBC. More than 100 Black former employees have joined a class-action lawsuit alleging racist discrimination and harassment at the Fremont factory.
"When Tesla came to court and tried to say they were zero tolerance … the jury was just offended by that because it was actually zero responsibility," attorney J. Bernard Alexander tells CNBC. The amount awarded—$130 million in punitive damages and $6.9 million for emotional distress—was more than attorneys requested. Bloomberg notes the "unprecedented" award is "among the most significant verdicts of its kind." But Tesla VP of People Valerie Capers Workman downplayed the claims Monday, writing that Diaz and three other witnesses who testified to hearing racial slurs on the factory floor "agreed that most of the time they thought the language was used in a 'friendly' manner and usually by African-American colleagues." (Read more Tesla stories.)