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Tesla rejects racial harassment lawsuit filed by assembly line worker

Tesla is defending itself against a lawsuit filed by an employee who says he was racially harassed, physically threatened, and discriminated against while working at the auto company.

44-year-old DeWitt Lambert, a black man from Alabama, has claimed in a suit that Tesla failed to come to his aid after he was "subjected to racial slurs and lewd behavior" from co-workers on an assembly line.

Tesla car production at Fremont, California.
David Butow | Corbis | Getty Images
Tesla car production at Fremont, California.

The lawsuit, filed by the California Civil Rights Law Group, said while Lambert worked at the Oakmont plant between the summer of 2015 and the spring of 2016 he was subjected to "continuous" abuse.

"They would call him the N-word throughout his workday, talk about the size of his penis and even placed a drill gun into his buttocks," an accompanying press release said late Monday.

The release also claimed that in October 2015 a video camera on Lambert's phone caught violent threats being made against him which repeatedly used the N-word and threatened to "cut you up in pieces".

Lambert himself described working at the plant as a "dream job that turned into a nightmare."

The complaint alleges that Tesla failed to properly investigate the issue or subsequently take action to protect Lambert.

Tesla, in a statement released Tuesday, rejected the accusation that it did not properly investigate the series of incidents.

The California Civil Rights Law Group said Tesla is therefore now liable for damages to the employee.

Tesla response

Tesla stated that after receiving a complaint by Lambert in April 2016 about the use of racially insensitive language, a series of interviews were carried out, which threw up conflicting accounts.

It said that fellow employees of Lambert said he had socialized outside of work with his alleged tormentors and he himself often used racially insensitive language.

"In the end, there was no objective evidence that anything inappropriate occurred toward Dewitt," Tesla said in the statement.

"As a result, our HR team coached this group of employees on the importance of behaving professionally and the investigation was closed," added Tesla.

Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk introduces the "falcon wing" door on the Model X electric sports-utility vehicle during a presentation in Fremont, California, on September 29, 2015.
Stephen Lam | Reuters
Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk introduces the "falcon wing" door on the Model X electric sports-utility vehicle during a presentation in Fremont, California, on September 29, 2015.

Tesla said later that year on July 6, 2016, Lambert then showed the firm's human resources team a video of racial abuse aimed towards him, which had actually been recorded back in 2015.

The tech and auto company described the video as: "Disappointing and contrary to our values" but also admitted that at this point any investigation went cold.

"The HR representative who had led the prior investigation left the company two days later on July 8, 2016, and didn't hand off the investigation to anyone else."

Tesla's statement also rejects Lambert's assertion that he was overlooked for career development because he made complaints, arguing that Lambert did, in fact, receive a promotion 12 months ago.

Tesla said Lambert is currently suspended on full pay by Tesla as the firm investigates alleged threats of violence from him to other co-workers.