A group of predominantly African American women kicked off the Napa Wine Train in late August -- allegedly for being too loud -- filed an $11-million racial discrimination lawsuit Thursday.
They said their reputations were tarnished and that some of them even lost their jobs after the incident.
The women, members of the Sistahs on the Reading Edge book club, said at a news conference that they received nasty comments from strangers, and that two of the women were fired from their jobs after the incident.
They even experienced disapproval from family members.
“That was the most humiliating experience I ever had in my entire life,” club member Lisa Renee Johnson said. “This is 2015, this can’t be happening. It just can’t happen again.”
The move comes despite an apology from the company’s chief executive, a promise of enhanced sensitivity training for workers and an offer to the women of a ride in a private car that could accommodate nearly 40 people.
The women said the apology they got was insufficient, likely spurred only by concerns about bad publicity. They further alleged that there was a racial dimension to the incident that was not addressed.
Soon after the incident, the wine train posted a statement on Facebook asserting that the women had become unruly once the conflict escalated.
“Following verbal and physical abuse toward other guests and staff, it was necessary to get our police involved,” the statement read. “Many groups come on board and celebrate. When those celebrations impact our guests, we do intervene.”
The women said that initial statement caused irreparable harm.
Linda Carlson, the only white woman in the group, said that if the women were all white, their actions would have never been an issue.
“I truly believe from the moment we got on the train we were singled out,” she said. “I truly know what it feels to be a black woman these days and to be discriminated against.”
The women, who all live in Antioch, east of San Francisco, have retained Waukeen McCoy, a San Francisco attorney.
“The lawsuit highlights that blacks are still being treated differently in America,” he said.
In a statement, Sam Singer, a spokesman for the Napa Valley Wine Train, said the company “takes the allegations of discrimination very seriously, and is conducting its own investigation. The company has hired former FBI agent Rick Smith to lead that probe and asked anyone with information to contact him at (415) 391-0500.
“After the investigation has been conducted we will have the appropriate response to the complaint that is being filed seeking $11 million in damages,” he said.
He said the company was sold on Sept. 15 and “the new owner is honored to continue to improve and build upon the Napa Valley Wine Train experience.”
Public backlash against the company began after Johnson posted photographs and comments on Facebook describing the moment she and 10 other women were kicked off the train and told by employees they were laughing too loud.
Singer had previously said that while the company regretted the way the women were treated, guests are removed monthly for loud or rowdy behavior and most of them are not African American.
The women said they have visited Napa several times in the past, but had never boarded the wine train.
The women boarded the train on Aug. 22, a Saturday morning, for club member Sandra Jamerson’s birthday. Before the train left the station, an employee told the group to “tone down your noise level because you’re being offensive to other passengers,” according to the lawsuit.
As they sipped wine, ate cheese and took photographs, they received another warning. Two hours later, train workers told the women that other passengers had complained about their noise level and that it had become a problem.
The women were told to leave because they were too loud. At least one passenger scolded the women, saying, “This is not a bar,” according to the lawsuit.
The woman said they were escorted through six train cars in front of passengers. About 1 p.m., the women were met by police officers and given a bus ride back to the station.
After they were booted from the train, Johnson said the women were guilty of “laughing while black.” The hashtag #laughingwhileblack, which Johnson used on her Facebook page, took off on social media, with many vowing to boycott the wine train.
“It has come to the point my friends that even black folks can’t be happy in this country,” said the Rev. Amos Brown, president of the NAACP in San Francisco.
The NAACP in Northern California called for sensitivity training for all wine train employees and offered to assist.