Testy exchanges in first day of Tesla race discrimination damages trial

Plaintiff Owen Diaz had refused a $15 million payout from Tesla, arguing that it was not punitive enough.

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

Plaintiff Owen Diaz, a black man who was then an elevator driver at the 5.5-million-square-foot factory, sued Tesla in 2017, alleging that he had been subjected to racial abuse and harassment, including derogatory racist drawings of black people with bones in their hair and exaggerated features bore marks.

A jury awarded Diaz $137 million in damages in 2021, with nearly $7 million earmarked for emotional distress and the rest as punitive damages, but U.S. District Judge William Orrick III reduced the award to $15 million dollars while continuing to affirm the jury’s findings.

Tesla had pushed to limit the damage to $600,000. However, Diaz eventually turned down the award, saying it was not punitive enough. This week’s trial is expected to identify new damage.

Witnesses called to the stand Tuesday included three former supervisors: Tamotsu Kawasaki, Michael Wheeler and Wayne Jackson. Although none of them were present during the incidents leading up to Diaz’s lawsuit, they all played a role in the subsequent investigation and knew Diaz.

Kawasaki, who recommended Diaz for the position of elevator operator moving materials from one floor to the next, was on hand when Diaz and another employee, Judy Timbreza, got into an altercation in one of the elevators. Though he didn’t see the conflict between the two, Kawasaki said he got there just in time to find them “face to face” and separate them. Afterwards, witnesses Kawasaki said they heard Timbreza call Diaz a racial slur.

Defense attorneys Alex Spiro – who led the defense in February’s Tesla securities trial – and colleague Asher Griffin took a combative stance on the witnesses. Kawasaki – now a plumber in nearby Daly City – seemed defensive and kept trying to deepen his answers, despite Spiro struggling to ask yes-or-no questions. Spiro lashed out at Kawasaki’s use of the term “racial in nature” to describe racist terms used by the former boss in an email to his boss reporting on the incident.

Kawasaki, who said he is married to a black woman and has black children, said he does not feel comfortable using the slur and said it was unprofessional to include it in a work-related email. Spiro in a smart gray suit and Kawasaki in a tight t-shirt and work pants got on each other’s nerves.

It didn’t get much better as the morning wore on. Both Wheeler and Jackson seemed short-tempered towards Spiro and Griffin, and Orrick had to smooth things over on more than one occasion. At one point, a visibly upset Jackson felt compelled to explain to Griffin during his cross-examination why it was demeaning for a black man like him to hear the N-word so casually dabbled at work. Griffin then noted that he is also black and had a black father.

Investigator Amy Oppenheimer of the Berkeley-based Oppenheimer Investigations Group, a law firm that provides workplace investigations, mediation and dispute resolution, addressed numerous failures by Tesla management to curb racist language and harassment at the plant and to investigate incidents, when they performed.

Oppenheimer pointed to several instances where Tesla management failed to investigate what happened to Diaz, noting that the actual investigation was neither thorough nor documented, and that no results had been obtained. While the automaker certainly had policies on how to handle such matters, it hadn’t trained its employees on how to handle it.

She also told the jury: “The message has to come from above. Because if the person at the top doesn’t respond, the whole organization follows what they see and not what they’re told.”

The process is expected to last until Friday. Plaintiff Diaz is scheduled to take the witness stand on Wednesday.

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