Members of a mostly African-American book club booted from the Napa Valley Wine Train in August after they were accused of being loud and boisterous sued the train’s owners for racial discrimination Thursday, charging they were humiliated in front of other passengers and defamed on social media.
Two of the 11 women said the ordeal caused them to lose their jobs.
“Blacks are still being treated differently in America,” attorney Waukeen McCoy said at a news conference announcing the lawsuit, filed in federal court in San Francisco. It seeks $11 million in damages, $1 million for each of the plaintiffs — 10 African-Americans and one white woman.
The company said in a statement that it takes allegations of discrimination very seriously and has hired a former FBI agent to investigate.
The lawsuit also claims the women were defamed by a company statement saying they were verbally and physically abusive.
Lisa Renee Johnson, a book club member and an author who documented the afternoon on her Facebook page, told The Napa Valley Register that the maître d’ delivered a number of warnings to the group, threatening to eject them from the train if they did not bring their noise level down. According to Johnson, when she asked who was complaining, the maître d’ said, “Well, people’s faces are uncomfortable.”
The company issued an apology after the women were ejected, promising additional training for employees on cultural diversity and sensitivity and free passes for a future trip on the tourist-oriented rail attraction.
Their removal led to discussion online under the hashtag #LaughingWhileBlack. The women wore black buttons with the hashtag at Thursday’s news conference.
Linda Carlson, the only white woman in the group, said that if all the women had been white, their actions would not have been an issue.
Al Jazeera and The Associated Press