SAN FRANCISCO (CA) — After four days of testimony, an eight-member jury of four men and four women moved into deliberation to determine how much should be awarded to Owen Diaz, a Black man who sued Tesla for racial discrimination and harassment.
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 figure based on the 1940s-era cartoon character Caveman Inki, wearing a bone in his hair with exaggerated facial features.
That Diaz would receive damages wasn’t at issue since a jury already found Tesla liable. Instead, Tesla's lawyers have spent the past week trying to contain the size of the award Diaz might receive.
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.
At the time, Tesla had pushed to limit the damage to $600,000. Diaz, however, eventually rejected the award, saying it wasn't punitive enough.
Given that Diaz had been found deserving of an award, Tesla's lawyers only needed to ensure that Tesla pays out as little as possible. That didn’t stop the defense from attempting to shape the jurors’ perceptions of Diaz, however, bringing up items such as Diaz’s criminal record dating back to the late 1980s, some 27 years before the incidents at Tesla.
Defense attorney Alex Spiro pushed hard to convince the jury that, aside from well documented incidents such as the racist drawing posted in a place where Diaz would easily find it, the former elevator operator had lied through much of his testimony. In his closing arguments, Spiro asked why his wife hadn’t been called to the stand despite his testimony that the stress he had been under as a result of his treatment at the factory had affected his marriage.
Spiro told jurors Diaz had told different stories to his psychologist and to the jury. He said Diaz had lied about being unemployed for six months following his departure from Tesla, as well as about the fracture of his relationship with his son.
Diaz said he had convinced his son, Demetric Di-az, 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 the young man apply through another staffing agency to work in another part of the factory.
Diaz said he had decided to surprise his son for lunch and wandered over to the part of the plant 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.
That story, Spiro told the jury, was a lie. The manager who insulted Diaz’s son, he said, wasn’t even white.
Punishment has to be based on reason, Spiro told the jury. “Whatever he is exactly owed under the law, that is fine.”
But comparing Diaz's experiences at Tesla to “Chinese water torture,” Diaz's attorney Bernard Alexander III told the jury it had been a constant reminder to Diaz that he was a second-class citizen. The attorney encouraged the jury to offer Diaz a large reward.
“Money does not necessarily make up for anything but it’s a crude method and the only method we have," Alexander told the jury.
Alexander had prepared charts suggesting more than $6 million in compensation plus punitive damages totaling 15% of the company’s worth in 2020, some $150 billion — and far more than the original damages.
That much money would “get their attention,” Alexander told the jurors, so that this never happens again.
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