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Family heartbreak revealed in Tesla race discrimination damages trial

Owen Diaz told the jury he felt helpless when he saw his son — who he'd encouraged to get a job at the Tesla plant too — suffering the same racist abuse he’d been enduring himself.

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — Jurors heard emotional testimony from the lead plaintiff in the damages portion of the racial discrimination trial of Tesla Motors Wednesday morning.

Minutes into his examination by attorney Larry Organ, Owen Diaz, 55, began to tear up as he recounted his anger after learning the meaning of a Spanish word one of his co-workers had been taunting him with.

Diaz, a Black man, had memorized the words he heard and then translated them with the help of an online translator. The word meant “porch monkey,” a derogatory term aimed at Black people implying they’re too lazy to work.

U.S. District Judge William Orrick III called for a 15-minute recess so Diaz could compose himself. Once he was back on the witness stand, Organ continued by asking Diaz why it was so upsetting.

“It really hurt,” Diaz replied. “It’s hard to talk about this. It was humiliating.”

Diaz, an elevator operator at the 5.5 million square foot factory, sued Tesla in 2017 claiming he was subjected to racist epithets and harassment, including a derogatory racist drawing of a Black figure, based on the 1940s-era cartoon character Caveman Inki, wearing a bone in his hair with exaggerated facial features.

A jury in 2021 awarded Diaz $137 million in damages, with nearly $7 million allotted for emotional distress and the rest as punitive damages. Orrick III reduced the award to $15 million while still upholding the jury’s findings.

Tesla had pushed to limit the damage to $600,000. Diaz, however, eventually rejected the award, saying it wasn't punitive enough. This week’s trial is to determine new damages.

Diaz said he had been excited to start work at Tesla because of the company’s cutting edge technology and its part in weaning the world off fossil fuels. His ID badge, given to him when he started work, sported a photo of Diaz grinning ear to ear from his excitement about landing a job at the Tesla factory.

His time at Tesla, however, had been anything but easy, and he told the jury the stress from year he had spent working for the electric car manufacturer had taken an enormous toll on his mental health and destroyed his relationship with his son, Demetric Di-az.

Diaz convinced his son — then 19 and just out of high school — to apply for work at the auto factory but, already wary of conditions at Tesla based upon his own experiences up to that point, he suggested Di-az apply through another contractor to work in another part of the factory. The young man got a job in a different part of the plant but the racism Diaz had hoped his son might avoid was rife throughout the facility, Diaz said.

One day, Diaz decided to surprise his son for lunch and wandered over to the part of the factory where he worked. It was there he found the young man being verbally abused by a Caucasian manager who called him the N-word — a manager who had seniority over Diaz as well.

The father told the jury he felt helpless when he saw his son suffering the same abuse he’d been enduring himself. Fearful of losing a much needed job — Diaz told the jury he was living paycheck to paycheck — he declined to step in. That inaction, he said, cost him his relationship with his son who lost respect for the father who did nothing.

“If I knew what I know now, I would never have brought him in,” a visibly distraught Diaz said. The father recounted that he had coached his son’s basketball and football teams, but that day he was unable to help.

Diaz’s attorney asked him if it was difficult to discuss this in open court. It was, Diaz replied, choking back tears. He had tried to leave work at work, he explained, and never talked about his experiences at the plant with his family.

Edward Ramon, who was Diaz’s supervisor, also testified. Ramon had reported to his own supervisors that, in one incident involving Diaz, no one had used racist epithets against him after another supervisor, Tamotsu Kawasaki, had already reported otherwise. Consequently, no investigation was launched.

Another co-worker and supervisor, Ramon Martinez, testified he hadn’t intended his drawing of Caveman Inki, drawn on a bale of cardboard and placed precisely where Diaz would be sure to see it, to be seen as an insult.

Inki was a character he remembered from his childhood, he said, although he acknowledged he had had an earlier altercation with Diaz and had complained to supervisors about unprofessional behavior by Diaz.

Jurors heard videotaped testimony from Erin Marconi, at the time a human resources specialist at the Tesla plant. She told the jury she frequently handled disputes between Tesla employees but rarely between employees of the contractors who oversaw many of the factory’s day-to-day operations.

Marconi told the jury she couldn’t recall any investigations surrounding use of the N-word and had no memory of the incident involving the drawing of Caveman Inki.

The trial is expected to wrap up Friday.  


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