Tesla ordered to pay $3.2M to black ex-worker Owen Diaz, who sought $160M for racial harassment

A federal jury in San Francisco on Monday ordered Tesla to pay about $3.2 million to a black former employee after the electric-vehicle maker was found to have failed to prevent severe racial harassment at its flagship assembly plant in California.

The verdict came after a week-long trial in the 2017 lawsuit by plaintiff Owen Diaz, who in 2021 was awarded $137 million by a different jury.

He opted for a new trial on damages after a judge agreed with that jury that Tesla was liable but significantly reduced the award to $15 million.

Diaz accused Tesla of failing to act when he repeatedly complained to managers that employees at the Fremont, Calif., factory frequently used racist slurs and scrawled swastikas, racist caricatures and epithets on walls and work areas.

The jury on Monday awarded Diaz, who worked as an elevator operator, $175,000 in damages for emotional distress and $3 million in punitive damages designed to punish unlawful conduct and deter it in the future.

Owen Diaz
A lawyer for Owen Diaz urged jurors during closing statements to award him nearly $160 million in damages.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk in a tweet said “the verdict would’ve been zero” if the judge had allowed the company to introduce new evidence in the retrial.

Musk added: “Jury did the best they could with the information they had. I respect the decision.”

Bernard Alexander, a lawyer for Diaz, urged jurors during closing statements on Friday to award him nearly $160 million in damages, and send a message to Tesla and other large companies that they will be held accountable for failing to address discrimination.

“Mr. Diaz’s outlook on the world has been permanently changed,” Alexander said. “That is what happens when you take away a person’s safety.”

Tesla’s lawyer, Alex Spiro, countered that Diaz was a confrontational worker who had exaggerated his claims of emotional distress, and said his lawyers failed to show 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.

Tesla's Fremont factory where Diaz used to work.
Tesla’s Fremont factory where Diaz used to work.
AFP via Getty Images

Tesla and lawyers for Diaz did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the verdict. The company has said it does not tolerate workplace discrimination and takes worker complaints seriously.

Diaz testified last week, tearfully recounting various incidents during the nine months that he worked at the Fremont factory. Diaz said the job made him anxious and strained his relationship with his son, who also worked at the plant.

Lawyers for Tesla highlighted what they said were inconsistencies in Diaz’s testimony and repeatedly raised the fact that he did not lodge written complaints to supervisors. Diaz testified that he verbally complained to managers numerous times and discussed his complaints with Tesla human resources officials.

Elon Musk
Elon Musk’s Tesla has said it does not tolerate workplace discrimination and takes worker complaints seriously.

The EV maker is facing similar claims of tolerating race discrimination at the Fremont plant and other workplaces in a pending class action by black workers, a separate case from a California civil rights agency, and multiple cases involving individual workers. The company has denied wrongdoing in those cases.

Diaz had sued Tesla 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 in 2021 awarded Diaz $7 million in damages for emotional distress and a staggering $130 million in punitive damages. The award was one of the largest in an employment discrimination case in US history.

Tesla's Fremont plant
The EV maker is facing similar claims of tolerating race discrimination at the Fremont plant and other workplaces.

US District Judge William Orrick last year agreed with the jury that Tesla had broken the law, but said the award was excessive and cut it to $15 million. The US Supreme Court has said punitive damages typically should be no more than 10 times compensatory damages.

Orrick said Diaz had worked at the factory for only nine months and had not alleged any physical injury or illness warranting a higher award.

On Friday, Orrick denied a motion by Diaz’s lawyers for a mistrial. They claimed Tesla’s legal team violated Orrick’s bar on introducing new evidence in the retrial by questioning Diaz and other witnesses about incidents where he allegedly made racist or sexual comments.

Orrick said those questions were related to other incidents discussed in the first trial, and that Diaz’s lawyers had not shown that the questioning prejudiced the jury.

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𝗖𝗿𝗲𝗱𝗶𝘁𝘀, 𝗖𝗼𝗽𝘆𝗿𝗶𝗴𝗵𝘁 & 𝗖𝗼𝘂𝗿𝘁𝗲𝘀𝘆:
𝗙𝗼𝗿 𝗮𝗻𝘆 𝗰𝗼𝗺𝗽𝗹𝗮𝗶𝗻𝘁𝘀 𝗿𝗲𝗴𝗮𝗿𝗱𝗶𝗻𝗴 𝗗𝗠𝗖𝗔,
𝗣𝗹𝗲𝗮𝘀𝗲 𝘀𝗲𝗻𝗱 𝘂𝘀 𝗮𝗻 𝗲𝗺𝗮𝗶𝗹 𝗮𝘁

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