Tesla worker who won $137m in racism payout says Elon Musk is ‘on notice’

‘These companies are using arbitration to effectively turn workers into slaves’

Gustaf Kilander
Washington, DC
Tuesday 05 October 2021 16:08

Related video: Elon Musk pledges Tesla investment in China

A former Tesla worker has been awarded $136.9m by a jury in San Francisco following claims that he was the subject of racist behaviour from bosses.

The former employee, Owen Diaz, was awarded the money on Monday.

“It’s been an emotional rollercoaster,” he told The Daily Beast. “The jury knew that this is not just for me, this verdict is for everybody that works at Tesla. This is their way of putting Elon Musk on notice.”

Mr Diaz is black and says that the company didn’t take action against racism in the workplace.

“[I] had supervisors telling me, ‘N****r, hurry up and push the button’, ‘N****r, push these batteries out of the elevator.’ And they were also telling me, ‘N*****s aren’t shit,’” Mr Diaz said.

Legal outlet Law360 wrote that $6.9m of the payout are compensatory damages and the remaining $130m are punitive damages.

It’s not yet clear how much of the funds will go to Mr Diaz, his legal team, or if Tesla will be able to use the appeals process to reduce the figure.

Mandatory arbitration contracts prevent many Tesla workers from suing the company over workplace disputes or treatment, but Mr Diaz started working at Tesla as a contractor and could therefore sue after working at the carmaker for less than a year. He left in the spring of 2016.

“God’s justice is that I didn’t sign the arbitration agreement,” he told The Daily Beast. “Arbitration is not good for the common worker … These companies are using arbitration to effectively turn workers into slaves.”

“Elon [Musk] has not called me, sent me a letter, a text, skywriting, or sent up one of them spaceships to say ‘I’m sorry,’” he said.

Mr Diaz’s story was reported by The New York Times in 2018. Tesla rejected the idea that they had done anything wrong, saying that they work “to provide a respectful work environment for all employees and do our best to prevent bad conduct”.

Mr Diaz told The Daily Beast that he plans on using part of his funds to start a business and hire homeless people and former prisoners.

“They don’t have a support system,” he said. “They feel they’re trapped in the system.”

Tesla was ordered to pay $1m in damages to an employee in August who also said that he had been called the N-word by co-workers, Bloomberg reported. Melvin Berry started at the company as a materials handler in 2015 but left after 17 months. Court documents say he was harassed at work. San Francisco employment lawyer Jeannette Vaccaro argued that supervisors ignored Mr Berry’s complaints that other employees at the California factory had called him the N-word.

According to Arbitrator Elaine Rushing’s ruling, two Tesla supervisors used racial slurs against Mr Berry, causing him emotional and psychological harm. Ms Rushing wrote that “case law is clear that one instance of a supervisor directing the N-word at a subordinate is sufficient to constitute severe harassment”.

“No other word in the English language so powerfully or instantly calls to mind our country’s long and brutal struggle to overcome racism and discrimination against African Americans,” she added.

While similar lawsuits have been filed over the last few years, Tesla has denied wrongdoing.

The Independent has reached out to Tesla for comment.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments