Tesla has been ordered by a federal jury to pay more than $100 million to a black former worker who claims he was subjected to a “racially hostile” work environment which the company failed to protect him from, the Wall Street Journal reports.
Owen Diaz worked as an elevator operator at Tesla’s Fremont, California factory for nine months from June 2015 to March 2016.
Defense attorneys claimed that the former worker had been subjected to a racially hostile work environment and that the company had failed to prevent him from being racially harassed. They also claimed that Tesla was negligent in its supervision or retention of an employee, thus causing harm to Diaz.
Tesla claimed it was unaware of the alleged discriminatory and harassing behavior towards Diaz and denied that it had failed to take action to protect black employees.
The eight-person jury ultimately favored Diaz and awarded $130 million in punitive damages, while Tesla must pay $6.9 million in compensatory damages.
In a blog post published on Tesla’s website on Monday, the company’s vice president of people, Valerie Capers Workman, said the jury heard that Diaz had never actually worked for Tesla and was in fact a contract employee who worked for Citistaff and nextSource.
Workman noted that three other witnesses who were not Tesla contract employees had testified that they regularly heard racial slurs—including the n-word—being used at the Fremont factory and while they agreed it was “not appropriate” at the workplace, they felt it was being used in a “friendly manner” and typically by African-American colleagues.
No witness recalled hearing the n-word being directed specifically at Diaz, who had written complaints about the racial hostility to non-Tesla supervisors.
They also noted seeing racist graffiti in the bathrooms at the factory which was later removed by a janitor.
Workman said that Diaz also made complaints about harassment to Tesla and that the company had made sure staffing agencies had taken timely action to address the matter, which resulted in two contractors having their roles terminated, while another was suspended.
The vice president said that Diaz had been “very satisfied” with the results of one of the investigations, and had even recommended that his son and daughter find job roles at Tesla.
“While we strongly believe that these facts don’t justify the verdict reached by the jury in San Francisco, we do recognize that in 2015 and 2016 we were not perfect. We’re still not perfect. But we have come a long way from 5 years ago. We continue to grow and improve in how we address employee concerns. Occasionally, we’ll get it wrong, and when that happens we should be held accountable,” Workman said.
Workman also noted that Tesla has put in place specific protocols to address employee complaints, such as an Employee Relations team, and a Diversity, Equity & Inclusion team to ensure equal opportunities among employees.
The company has also replaced its Anti-Handbook Handbook with a comprehensive Employee Handbook with details about employee protections and policies.
“We acknowledge that we still have work to do to ensure that every employee feels that they can bring their whole self to work at Tesla… we will continue to remind everyone who enters the Tesla workplace that any discriminatory slurs—no matter the intent or who is using them—will not be tolerated,” Workman added.
Tesla Chief Executive Elon Musk has not revealed if he has plans to appeal the verdict.