Tesla must face race bias class action by 6,000 Black US workers

FILE PHOTO: A Tesla supercharging station is seen in the early morning sun, in Kettleman City, California, U.S., January 25, 2023. REUTERS/Mike Blake/File Photo

(Reuters) -A California state judge tentatively ruled that nearly 6,000 Black factory workers can sue Tesla as a group for the electric vehicle maker's alleged failure to address rampant race discrimination and harassment at its Fremont plant.

California Superior Court Judge Noel Wise in Oakland said in a written order issued on Wednesday that the lawsuit presents questions common to all Black workers at the plant of whether Tesla was aware of the alleged misconduct and refused to take steps to prevent it.

The named plaintiff, former assembly line worker Marcus Vaughn, first sued in 2017, alleging that Black factory workers were subjected to a range of racist conduct including slurs, graffiti and nooses hung at their workstations.

Tesla did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Thursday.

Lawrence Organ, a lawyer for Vaughn, said he was "heartened" by the ruling and looked forward to developing a plan for a trial in the case.

"I think the numerous complaints over time show how Tesla failed to prevent racial harassment of its Black employees," Organ said in an email.

Tesla has maintained it does not tolerate workplace harassment and that it has fired employees who were found to have engaged in racial harassment.

The tentative ruling comes ahead of a hearing scheduled for Friday where Tesla can contest Wise's decision, though judges are typically unlikely to change their minds.

The decision represents a major blow to Tesla as it opens the company up to a potential multimillion-dollar judgment. The class includes people who self-identified as Black and worked at the Fremont factory going back to November 2016.

Wise said she planned to hold a trial in the lawsuit beginning in October, when she also will preside over a trial in a case involving similar claims against Tesla by a California state civil rights agency.

Tesla is also facing race bias claims in federal court in California brought by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which enforces federal anti-discrimination laws. Tesla has moved to dismiss that case or alternatively to pause it, claiming the other lawsuits should be resolved first.

The company, meanwhile, is appealing a $3.2 million jury verdict awarded to a Black former elevator operator at the Fremont plant in a separate racial harassment lawsuit. The worker, Owen Diaz, had won a $137 million jury verdict after an initial 2021 trial, but a judge ordered a second trial after ruling the award was excessive.

(Reporting by Daniel Wiessner in Albany, New York; Editing by Toby Chopra, Alexander Smith, Alexia Garamfalvi, Jonathan Oatis and Aurora Ellis)

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