As we slowly get back to trying civil cases live and in courtrooms, one key factor in current jury verdicts is the recent experiences that Americans have gone through during COVID. Attitudes are changing and leading to some spectacularly high verdicts in cases that would have yielded reasonable results pre-COVID.
A good example is Owen Diaz v. Tesla, Inc. Case No. 3:17-cv-06748-WHO, Northern District, California. The $137 million October 4, 2021 verdict is an insight into changing juror attitudes.
Owen Diaz, who is African-American, was an employee of staffing agency Citistaff. Citistaff assigned him to the Tesla factory in Fremont, California where he worked as an elevator operator from June 2015 to May 2016. In 2017, Owen filed a complaint in the Superior Court of the State of California, County of Alameda alleging that soon after he started at the Tesla factory, he began to experience racial harassment on a daily basis. Owen claimed that Tesla employees repeatedly called him racial epithets and told him to “go back to Africa” on a regular basis, which caused Owen to feel demeaned and offended. [Despite these issues, Owen encouraged his son Demetric to apply for a job opening at the Tesla factory through a different staffing agency and Demetric was hired to work as a production associate. He was terminated within a week of reporting offensive comments by his supervisor.]
Owen’s complaint alleged that he found out that elevator supervisor Ramon Martinez had been drawing racist caricatures of African children and placing them around the factory in locations where African-American employees would see them. When Owen complained to Ramon that the drawings were offensive, Ramon accused Owen of being oversensitive and refused to stop creating the drawings. Owen alleged that he complained to his supervisor and to Citistaff, but no action was taken in response to his complaint and that he was not allowed to complain to Tesla’s human resources department because he was an employee of Citistaff and not Tesla. In a later incident, Ramon allegedly acted threateningly towards Owen, shouting and acting aggressively towards him while Owen was training a new employee. Owen complained about the incident to Citistaff, but no action was taken. Owen alleged that in Spring of 2016, Citistaff informed Owen that he would be demoted from his position as a supervisor because he was causing too much trouble, however Owen believed the demotion was made in retaliation for his complaints. In an interview with the New York Times, Owen said he ultimately found the environment so degrading that he struggled to get out of bed for work and quit his employment in May 2016.
Owen’s complaint was removed to the United States District Court Northern District of California where the case was tried before a jury of eight. According to the Washington Post, Tesla argued at trial that even if Owen’s allegations were true, Owen was not an employee of Tesla, but rather someone who had been paired with a job in its facilities. Owen’s attorney argued that Tesla was a joint employer because Owen was working at Tesla, using Tesla equipment and taking direction from Tesla’s workers who determined his hours and rate of pay.
On October 4, 2021 the jury returned its verdict finding in favor of Owen on all claims. The jury’s verdict found Tesla was a joint employer of Owen, Owen was subjected to a racially hostile work environment by Tesla, Tesla failed to take all reasonable steps necessary to prevent Owen from being subject to racial harassment, and Tesla’s negligent supervision of its employees caused harm to Owen. The jury awarded Owen $6.9 million in damages for emotional distress and $130 million in punitive damages. Following the verdict, Owen 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.” One of Owen’s attorneys, Lawrence Organ of the California Civil Rights Law Group, told NPR that he believed it was the largest award in a racial harassment case involving a single plaintiff in U.S. history and that he and Owen hope that it sends a message to corporate America to take proactive measures to protect employees against racist conduct. In a New York Times interview Organ said “It’s a great thing when one of the richest corporations in America has to have a reckoning of the abhorrent conditions at its factory for Black people.”
These statements to the press mirror how many jurors are feeling after a year of lock-downs, governmental regulations and gridlock, and social justice movements that have failed to produce the sought for reforms. Corporations are no longer seen as the backbone of community jobs and support that they were 50 years ago. Many of today’s jurors will have had unpleasant, unfortunate and even financially or personally devastating experiences as employees of corporations over the past few years.
In the extreme, they view corporations as untrustworthy, profit-mongering, exploitive entities. On average, they see corporations as not caring about employees unless it benefits the corporation’s “bottom line”.
Corporations and their attorneys need to be aware of these shifting juror values and views. In a society increasing driven by social media posturing and cultural divisions, jurors appreciate candor and accountability. This recognition can go a long way to help reducing the nuclear verdicts that are occurring all over the country in every industry, and particularly in employment and transportation.