The second day of Tesla's racial bias trial included testimony from a former worker who said he found feces on a factory cart

tesla factory fremont
Former Tesla contractor Michael Wheeler testified that the N-word was often used at the factory he worked at and detailed an alleged incident where he said he found feces on the driver's seat of a work cart he used.Benjamin Zhang/Business Insider
  • An ex-Tesla worker testified on Tuesday that he often heard the N-word and once found feces at work.

  • It was part of a retrial for an ex-contractor who filed a racial discrimination lawsuit against Tesla.

  • The case is being retried after the worker rejected a $15 million payout.

A story about a Tesla worker who said he found feces smeared on his factory cart has become an early point of contention in a racial discrimination lawsuit against the electric-car maker.

On Monday, the US District Court, Northern District of California kicked off a five-day retrial for Owen Diaz, a former contractor who alleged that he was harassed and discriminated against based on his race during his time at Tesla. In 2021, a jury determined Diaz should be awarded $137 million in damages, but a judge decided the sum was too high after Tesla challenged the verdict and it was cut down to a $15 million payout. Instead of accepting the $15 million, Diaz and his lawyers chose to have the case retried with a new jury.

Wheeler was one of a handful of former Tesla workers that testified on Tuesday regarding their experience as Black workers at Tesla's Fremont factory. Diaz's lawyer, Larry Organ of the California Civil Rights Law Group, said Wheeler's story "goes to Tesla's lack of follow through on complaints," Law360 reported.

On Tuesday, former Tesla contractor Michael Wheeler testified that the N-word was often used at the factory and detailed an alleged incident where he said he found feces on the driver's seat of a work cart he used. Wheeler said that the incident occurred one evening during his night shift at the factory after he took a 30-minute break.

"I came back to my cart and slid into the seat in which I noticed there was a wet feeling on my pants," Wheeler said. "So I got out of the seat and I had sat in feces."

The ex-contractor said he reported the incident to Tesla, but to his knowledge the issue was never addressed. Wheeler added that he also asked for footage of the incident, as he believed it was likely the factory would have some of its surveillance cameras in that area. He said he was told by supervisors that there were no cameras in the area.

Tesla initially fought to have the story excluded from evidence at the trial and argued on Monday that the alleged incident was not similar to some of the issues Diaz faced, Law360 reported. The carmaker's lawyers also sought to broadly exclude "evidence of harm to others" at the factory, which included Wheeler's testimony, the publication said. The judge did not rule at the end of the hearing on Monday, but took the motions under submission, per Law360.

"The parties are stuck with the decisions they made prior to and at the first trial that resulted in the evidence that was presented at the first trial," Judge William Orrick said, according to Law360.

Wheeler had testified about the alleged incident in the initial trial in 2021.

In an email from Wheeler to several Tesla supervisors, the ex-contractor said he believed the incident was "a possible hate crime," according to an exhibit from the trial that was submitted on Tuesday.

"This was deliberately put where it could be sat on but not see," Wheeler said in the email. "Please check the cameras and have HR remove this person. Also, please have hazwaste come pick this up. It's still here. If no one shows up on the cameras then, so be it. But, please, if there is confirmation of foul play, I need concrete evidence that this individual was terminated," he added.

During cross-examination, Tesla's lawyer, Alex Spiro of Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, suggested that no employees were interviewed or terminated as a result of the alleged incident because the cart Wheeler referred to had been used to transport an employee who had the "stomach flu." He cited an exhibit containing a response to Wheeler's email in which a building services manager had indicated they were investigating whether the incident was related to someone who'd been sick that night.

Diaz originally filed his lawsuit in 2017. In the lawsuit, he accused Tesla of failing to address his complaints of racial slurs, images of swastikas, and racist caricature sketches at the Fremont factory. His complaints echo similar lawsuits from other Tesla factory workers. The electric-car maker is also facing a lawsuit from a California civil rights regulator that has argued "hundreds" of Black workers at its factory have faced racial discrimination.

A Tesla spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment from Insider ahead of publication. On Monday, Spiro argued Diaz exaggerated his claims, Bloomberg reported.

"What this case is not about is whether we think everything that happened at the Fremont factory of Tesla was defensible or right. It was not. There's no excuse," Spiro said on Monday, per Bloomberg. "This case is also not about harassment generally or the problems of this country or the history of the world and what we all ought to spend more time doing to make it better."

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