SAN FRANCISCO (CBS13/AP) – A group of mostly black women filed a racial discrimination lawsuit Thursday after they were removed from a train that tours Napa Valley wineries, saying it was humiliating to be thrown off a rail car when loud and inebriated white passengers were allowed to stay.
The 11 women sued Napa Valley Wine Train Inc., claiming they were singled out because of race and seeking $11 million in damages. The company said in a statement that it takes allegations of discrimination very seriously and has hired a former FBI agent to investigate.
CEO Tony Giaccio apologized in August for the company kicking 11 members of the book club off the train for being disruptive.
“It was 100 percent customer service fail on our part,” he said.
He has offered to have up to 50 members of the book club and their friends come back on the train in a reserved car as his personal guests. He says his staff will also undergo additional diversity training.
The women said many of them were part of a book club that meets regularly and had gathered on the train to discuss a romance novel. Before the train left the station in Napa, a train employee asked them to quiet down because they were offending other passengers, they said.
The same employee admonished them a second time before telling them that police officers would be waiting for them when the train reached St. Helena, the suit says. They were escorted through several cars as other passengers stared and then off the train and into a dirt lot where police were waiting, according to the suit.
“That was the most humiliating experience that I have ever had in my entire life,” Lisa Johnson, 47, said with tears in her eyes, appearing with some of the other women at a news conference announcing the lawsuit. “This is 2015, and this just cannot happen again.”
The wine train 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.
The lawsuit also claims the women were defamed by a company statement saying they had been verbally and physically abusive.
Their removal led to discussion online under the hashtag, #laughingwhileblack. The women wore black buttons with the hashtag at Thursday’s news conference.
Katherine Neal, 85, the oldest woman in the group, said she was reminded of when she was about 12 and a store clerk asked her to eat her ice cream outside while white families ate inside.
“I took this case because it’s an egregious case,” said the women’s attorney, Waukeen McCoy. “This lawsuit highlights that blacks are still being treated differently in America.”
McCoy said he engaged in settlement talks with the company, but it did not make an offer.
The Napa Valley Wine Train offers food and wine to passengers as they visit Napa County wineries in updated Pullman cars.
A spokesman for the company, Sam Singer, has said individuals or groups are asked to get off the wine train once a month on average for various reasons.
Copyright 2015 The Associated Press.