Eleven book club members who created a storm of attention when they were kicked off the Napa Valley Wine Train in August are suing the company, seeking $11 million in damages for racial discrimination, libel and breach of contract.
Civil rights attorney Waukeen McCoy filed the complaint in U.S. District Court in San Francisco this morning.
“The actions taken by the wine train were egregious,” McCoy said in announcing the lawsuit today. “This lawsuit highlights that blacks are still being treated differently in America.”
Wine train CEO Anthony Giacco acknowledged days after the incident that the company was “100 percent wrong” in removing the women from the train as he apologized publicly and offered the women a private ride on the train.
But the members of the Sistahs on the Reading Edge book club say they have had lasting professional and personal consequences from the Aug. 22 incident, including two of the women losing their jobs.
The 10 black women and one white woman, eight of whom are members of the book club, boarded the wine train that Saturday for a lunch ride, expecting to enjoy each other’s company while sipping wine and watching views of Napa Valley vineyards on the ride from Napa to St. Helena and back.
The excursion is one the women take to the Napa Valley each year, but it was the first time they had ridden the wine train. They booked tickets for the ride in December and made a reservation in May.
But before they had even left the station they were warned by the train’s maitre d’ that they would have to “tone down” their noise level because they were “being offensive to other passengers,” according to the complaint.
The women tried to make the best of it. They were seated in an L-shaped configuration, making talking among themselves challenging without raising their voices. They tried to keep their noise down and interacted positively with the other passengers.
The maitre d’ returned about 45 minutes later and told the group, “That’s it. This is not going to work. Either you guys tone it down or I am going to have to ask you to leave the train,” according to the complaint.
Asked who was complaining, she responded, “I can see it on the face of the other passengers when you laugh out loud.”
Shortly afterward, other passengers moved from the back car, the “bar car,” to go to the dining car for lunch while the book club members were made to stay behind. Once the train reached St. Helena, they were escorted through each of the other train cars to the front of the train, where they got off the train to waiting police.
Being “paraded” in front of the other passengers who “snickered” as they walked by was humiliating, according to the women. The complaint alleges that the white passengers they passed were inebriated and louder than they had been, but they were singled out because of their race.
One of the women was recovering from knee surgery and walking with a cane. Another was 85 years old.
As they got off, one police officer remarked to the women, “You are not what we expected. We were told there were 11 unruly passengers,” according to the complaint.
McCoy said today that St. Helena police had never been called to escort passengers from the wine train, disputing a statement from public relations expert Sam Singer, who was hired after the incident, that train officials had to remove passengers about once a month.
Author and entrepreneur Lisa Johnson, 47, chronicled the trip on Facebook. At first expecting to record a fun trip for her friends, she soon found her posts the subject of a national news story.
As the social media backlash quickly grew, the wine train made its own Facebook post stating, “Following verbal and physical abuse towards other guests and staff, it was necessary to get our police involved. Many groups come on board and celebrate. When those celebrations impact other guests, we do intervene.”
The statement was taken down within the day and the wine train has since acknowledged it was inaccurate.
The women say that post has had serious consequences for them, including two of them losing their jobs over it, one as a nurse and the other with U.S. Bank. Johnson said she has had to field questions on the incident during professional meetings since then and others have reported being interrogated on it by friends and family.
Johnson called it “the most humiliating experience I’ve ever had in my life” and said she was continuing to pursue action to make anyone in a similar position “think twice before they treat somebody else like they treated us because it’s totally unacceptable.”
“We are a book club, we read books, we enjoy one another’s company. We’ve been together for 17 years,” Johnson said. “Not in my wildest dreams did I ever think our annual trip to Napa would end with us getting kicked off the wine train into a dirt lot in the hot sun.”
Linda Carlson, 55, the lone white woman in the group, was deemed guilty by association by being with a group of all black women, McCoy said. Carlson said she had no doubt that they were treated differently because the group was mostly black.
“No one should ever have to experience what we experienced,” Carlson said. “And I truly know now what it feels like to be a black woman in this society and be discriminated against.”
The suit seeks $11 million in damages from the wine train for discrimination based on race, defamation, libel, racial discrimination under color of law, intentional infliction of emotional distress, breach of contract, breach of covenant of good faith and fair dealing, and unfair competition.
They are also seeking the implementation of a racial sensitivity training program for wine train management and staff. Shortly after the incident, wine train officials said they were improving diversity training for staff.
In a statement today, Singer said the wine train has hired former FBI agent Rick Smith to conduct an investigation into the incident and will not have an appropriate response to the lawsuit until his investigation is complete. He asked anyone with information to contact Smith at (415) 391-0500.
Scott Morris, Bay City News