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Tuesday, May 28, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Wine Train Handed $11M Suit for PR Blunder

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - Eleven women who were kicked off a Napa Valley wine train for being "too loud" sued the train company and three of its employees on Thursday, seeking damages of over $11 million.

The group, consisting of 10 black women and one white woman who boarded the train to discuss a monthly book club reading, made national news in August when thousands of social media comments marked with the hashtag #LaughingWhileBlack heaped harsh criticism on the wine train over the incident.

The federal lawsuit lobs a slew of accusations at Napa Valley Wine Train and its employees, including claims of racial discrimination, defamation, libel, breach of contract, bad faith dealing, unfair competition and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Lead plaintiff Lisa Johnson, president and founder of the "Sistahs on the Reading Edge Book Club," says her professional reputation as a published author and public speaker was tarnished by the episode.

Co-plaintiffs Debbie Reynolds and Allisa Carr claim they both lost their jobs when the company published false statements about the group after the incident.

In a statement released Oct. 1, Napa Valley Wine Train said it "takes the allegations of discrimination very seriously" and has hired a former FBI agent to investigate what happened.

"After the investigation has been conducted, we will have the appropriate response to the complaint that has been filed seeking $11 million in damages," the statement said, adding the company was sold on Sept. 15 to a new owner who will "continue to improve and build upon the Napa Valley Wine Train experience."

Defendant companies named in the lawsuit include Napa Valley Wine Train, Noble House Hotels & Resorts, and Brooks Street Property Management.

The lawsuit also lays blame on wine train employee Anna Marquinn, the maître d'hotel who kicked the group off the train. Defendant employees Kim Powers and Kira McManus Devitt were also blamed for allegedly writing and approving a defamatory Facebook post about the women.

Not long after boarding the train in Napa on Aug. 22, Marquinn warned the group to "tone down" their noise level because they were "being offensive" to other passengers, according to the 23-page complaint.

Although the women had twice informed the wine train of their plans to discuss a book "with lots of dialogue and laughter" and were told they would be accommodated, the women were nonetheless seated in a configuration not conducive to group communication, the lawsuit claims.

About 45 minutes after the first warning, Maurqinn again told the group to tone down their volume or that they would be asked to leave. When Johnson asked Marquinn what passengers they were offending, Marquinn responded, "I can see it on the face of passengers when you laugh too loud," according to the complaint.

At one point, a white passenger leaned into the aisle and said, "This is not a bar," prompting Johnson to reply that it was in fact a bar because they were seated in the train's aptly named "bar car," the complaint states.

When the train arrived in St. Helena, the women were denied the gourmet lunch served to other passengers and "humiliatingly marched through six train cars" to exit the through the front of the train while passing other drunk and boisterous white passengers, according to the suit.

"This action shows that African Americans are policed by other patrons and by management in restaurants, theatres and public places," the complaint states. "African American adults are more likely to be shushed, stared at, and kicked out of places where white people perceive that they do not fit."

Following their removal from the train, the women boarded a 12-passenger van and headed back to Napa before learning that the wine train posted a Facebook comment accusing the women of engaging in "verbal and physical abuse towards other guests and staff."

As a result, the women say they suffered damage to their reputations and had friends and family members asking them about getting kicked off the train for their "unruly and abusive behavior."

Two days after the incident, on Aug. 24, Napa Valley Wine Train CEO Anthony Giaccio publicly apologized for the "inaccurate" Facebook post and said the company was "100 percent wrong in its handling of this issue," according to the suit.

According to the complaint, Giacco's post stated: "Clearly, we knew in advance when we booked your party that you would be loud, fun-loving and boisterous-because you told us during the booking process. Somehow that vital information never made to the appropriate channels."

The women characterized the public apology as a disingenuous public relations tool focused more on repairing the company's tarnished image than making amends for the unfair treatment.

The plaintiffs seek injunctive relief, punitive damages, special damages and general damages in excess of $11 million.

They are represented by attorney Waukeen McCoy of San Francisco.

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