Lisa Johnson, left, one of the plaintiffs filing a lawsuit over their ejection from a Napa Valley Wine Train, wipes her eyes during a news conference, Thursday, October 1, 2015, in San Francisco.
Five members of the Sistahs on the Reading Edge book club, from left: Katherine Neal, Georgia Lewis, Lisa Renee Johnson, Allisa Carr and Sandra Jamerson.
Speaking to The Guardian, Johnson said: “We feel it is really important for us to speak up”. The group’s trip ended prematurely in St. Helena, where the 11 women were marched past other passengers and handed over to police officers waiting at trackside.
However, someone from the company posted an account of the incident on Facebook that accused the women of “verbal and physical abuse toward other guests and staff”.
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. “This lawsuit highlights that blacks are still being treated differently in America”. The women say they were targeted by employees due to their race. The action names the wine train, its owners and three employees as defendants and seeks $11 million in damages.
It was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California in San Francisco. The hashtag #LaughingWhileBlack took off on social media after the incident.
The women and their lawyer, Waukeen McCoy, dismissed that offer and are now pursing this lawsuit. At one point, a white passenger leaned into the aisle and said, “This is not a bar”, prompting Johnson to reply that it was in fact a bar because they were seated in the train’s aptly named “bar auto”, the complaint states. Defendant companies named in the lawsuit include Napa Valley Wine Train, Noble House Hotels & Resorts, and Brooks Street Property Management.
Tony Giaccio, chief executive of the Napa Valley Wine Train, belatedly apologised to the women and conceded his company had been “100% wrong” in its handling of “this regrettable treatment of our guests”.
PR consultant Sam Singer’s office issued a brief statement about the investigation today, saying, “After the investigation has been conducted we will have the appropriate response to the complaint that has been filed”.
The backlash resulted in the creation of a Napa Valley Soul train, which plans to offer rides to Latino and black-owned vineyards in the fall.
The company has maintained, however, that groups or individuals are removed from the train for drinking behavioral reasons about once a month.