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Tesla wants new trial over ‘Jim Crow era racism’ at Fremont factory



Tesla in a new court filing has cast doubt on the extent of racism at its Fremont factory and whether a Black former worker suffered racism-based distress, the latest long-running lawsuit alleging that attitudes at the plant recalled the “Jim Crow era” in U.S. history.

Former Tesla contractor Owen Diaz, a Black man who worked as an elevator operator in the electric car plant in 2015 and 2016, claimed in his 2017 lawsuit that he and other Black workers were called racial slurs on a daily basis, that he was told to “go back to Africa” and that he was subjected to “vitriolic racial harassment.” The court further heard Diaz found swastikas and racist graffiti including “death to all (n-words)” on walls in the plant.

Last year, a jury awarded Diaz $137 million, but in April, Judge William Orrick in U.S. District Court in San Francisco slashed the amount to $15 million. Orrick said he was bound by precedent to reduce the award but said the jury had ample reason to believe Diaz suffered severe emotional harm. Orrick noted that “supervisors even joined in on the abuse, one going so far as to threaten Diaz and draw a racist caricature near his workstation.”

Diaz in June rejected the reduced payment, and Orrick denied his attempt to appeal it, giving him two weeks to accept the lower award or have the new trial Tesla was seeking. Diaz refused the lower award, and Orrick ordered a new trial, but only on the damages amount.

Tesla in a court filing Friday is asking Orrick to go beyond the issue of the damages, to include whether Tesla is legally liable for any racism at the Fremont factory.

“Compensatory and punitive damages here are inextricably intertwined with liability,” Tesla argued in the filing.

Tesla in its filing questioned whether Diaz experienced racist incidents or suffered distress, saying he was “supposedly subjected to racial slurs,” and referring to his “purported emotional distress.”

The company is embroiled in several legal battles over alleged racism in its facilities. In February, California’s civil rights regulator sued Tesla — which moved its headquarters from Palo Alto to Texas late last year — claiming Black workers at Tesla’s Fremont factory were paid less than white workers, denied advancements and faced daily racist abuse, including a noose drawn in a bathroom next to a reference to lynching. The company, led by CEO Elon Musk, has called that lawsuit by the Department of Fair Employment and Housing “misguided” and said it “strongly opposes all forms of discrimination and harassment (and) has always disciplined and terminated employees who engage in misconduct, including those who use racial slurs or harass others in different ways.”

Earlier this year, Kaylen Barker, a Black worker at a Tesla parts factory in Lathrop, claimed in a lawsuit that after a white co-worker called her a racial slur and assaulted her, Tesla fired then soon rehired her assailant. In March, Marcellous Cage, a Black former manager for Tesla, claimed in a lawsuit that White co-workers tormented him and he was fired in part because of his race. In May, an arbitrator ordered Tesla to pay $1 million to Melvin Berry, a Black former Tesla factory worker called racial slurs by supervisors. In July, 15 Black workers and former workers sued the company claiming it did nothing to fix a racist work environment that included harassment, intimidation and discrimination. Tesla is also still fighting a 2017 lawsuit by former worker Marcus Vaughn, a Black man who claimed the Fremont factory floor was a “hotbed for racist behavior.”

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