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Testy exchanges in first day of Tesla race discrimination damages trial

Plaintiff Owen Diaz had rejected a $15 million payout from Tesla arguing it wasn't punitive enough.

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — Witnesses painted a picture Tuesday of Tesla’s Fremont, California, factory as a place where racist language and harassment flowed freely and higher-ups did little to nothing about it.

Plaintiff Owen Diaz, a Black man who was then 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 derogatory racist drawings of Black figures wearing bones in their 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, but U.S. District Judge William 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.

Witnesses called to the stand Tuesday included three former supervisors: Tamotsu Kawasaki, Michael Wheeler, and Wayne Jackson. While none of them had been on hand during the incidents which prompted Diaz’s lawsuit, they each played a role in the subsequent investigations and knew Diaz.

Kawasaki, who had recommended Diaz for the elevator operator position, ferrying material from one factory floor to the next, had been on hand when an altercation on one of the elevators broke out between Diaz and another employee, Judy Timbreza. While he hadn’t seen the conflict between the two, Kawasaki said he had arrived just in time to find them “face to face” and separated them. Afterward, witnesses told Kawasaki they had heard Timbreza call Diaz a racial slur.

Defense attorneys Alex Spiro — who led the defense in February’s Tesla securities trial — and his colleague Asher Griffin took a combative tack with the witnesses. Kawasaki — now a plumber in nearby Daly City — seemed defensive and continued to try and elaborate on his answers despite Spiro’s efforts to ask yes or no questions. Spiro pounced on Kawasaki’s use of the term “racial in nature” to describe racial epithets which the former supervisor had used in an email to his superior reporting the incident.

Kawasaki, who said he is married to a Black woman and has Black children, said he wasn’t comfortable using the slur, and said including it in a work related email seemed unprofessional. Spiro, dressed in a sharp gray suit and Kawasaki, in a tight T-shirt and work pants, were getting on each other’s nerves.

It didn’t get much better as the morning wore on. Both Wheeler and Jackson, too, seemed short-tempered with Spiro and Griffin, and Orrick had to smooth things over more than once. At one point, a visibly annoyed Jackson felt compelled to explain to Griffin during his cross-examination why hearing the N-word batted about so casually at work was demeaning to a Black man like himself. Griffin then noted he is also Black and had a Black father.

Expert witness Amy Oppenheimer with Berkeley-based Oppenheimer Investigations Group, a law office providing workplace investigations as well mediation and conflict resolution, addressed numerous failings by Tesla management to rein in racist language and harassment at the factory and investigate incidents when they occurred.

Oppenheimer pointed out several instances where Tesla management failed to investigate what had happened to Diaz, noting that what investigation actually took place was neither thorough nor documented, and that there hadn’t been any findings made. While the automaker certainly had policies for dealing with such matters in place, it hadn’t trained its employees on how to deal with them.

Furthermore, she told the jury, “the message has to come from the top. Because if the person at the top isn’t addressing it, then the whole organization is going to follow what they see and not what they’re told.”

The trial is expected to continue through Friday. On Wednesday, plaintiff Diaz is expected to take the witness stand.

Categories:Employment, Technology, Trials

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