SAN FRANCISCO — The East Bay female book club members who filed a racial discrimination lawsuit against the Napa Valley Wine Train after being kicked out for “being too loud” have settled the case, their attorney said Monday.
The 11 women, 10 of whom are black, sought $11 million in damages in their lawsuit filed in October, claiming their ejection on Aug. 22 stemmed from racial bias and caused two plaintiffs to lose their jobs.
The two parties went into private mediation and reached an amicable settlement on Thursday, said Waukeen McCoy, the San Francisco lawyer who represents the plaintiffs. The settlement amount is confidential, he said.
“The parties are both very excited about resolving the case and moving forward,” McCoy said.
He said he hopes that businesses such as the Wine Train develop sensitivity and diversity to their programs so that this never happens again.
Wine Train CEO Anthony Giaccio and Patrick Wingfield, an attorney representing the train line, declined comment.
The women, who hail from Antioch, Oakland, Pittsburg, Oakley, Richmond and other cities, are members of the Sistahs on the Reading Edge book club, who have scheduled summertime Napa Valley excursions for 17 years. On their planned Wine Train journey last summer, they intended to discuss Brenda Jackson’s romance novel “A Man’s Promise” as their monthly title, but they say they never got the chance.
What happened that morning on the trip to St. Helena became the source of intense dispute. Eighteen miles up the rails, Wine Train employees evicted the women — whose ages range from 36 to 85 — after telling them multiple times they were being too loud during a three-hour ride from Napa north through the wine country.
The train’s maître d’hôtel kicked the women off the train after asking them a few times to “tone down (their noise) level,” according to court documents. During the ejection, she walked the women through six train cars before exiting onto a dirt lot at the St. Helena station, where police waited with them until a taxi van arrived. The maître d’hôtel also told police that the book club members “were unruly and aggressive,” according to court documents.
The book club’s leader, Lisa Renee Johnson of Antioch, harshly criticized the Wine Train for aborting their trip.
In social media statements and interviews after the ejection, Johnson said her friends were merely “chitchatting” before train employees told them their noise level was making other passengers uncomfortable. She accused the company of singling out her group for being African-American and occasionally laughing together loudly – an allegation that inspired Twitter and Facebook users to excoriate the Wine Train using the hashtag #laughingwhileblack.
Book club members also attacked the Wine Train for posting a Facebook statement claiming its staff dealt with “verbal and physical abuse” by the women “toward other guests and staff.” The posting appeared within hours of the ejections, but was taken down within a day.
“That’s not who we are. We are beautiful professional women who would not use violence in any way,” Johnson said in reply the day after the incident. “I’m very traumatized by the picture they’ve painted of us.”
Two of the women — a nurse and a bank/credit card company employee — said they lost their jobs because of news reports about the incident and comments made about them on social media.
Johnson’s online account of her friends’ expulsion, which she posted the same night, triggered a worldwide social media firestorm. The Napa Valley Register’s original story on the incident drew more than 92,500 views and 136 online comments over two days, and coverage eventually extended to The New York Times, major television networks and British newspapers.
Giaccio, the Wine Train chief executive, formally apologized to the book club, retracting claims of misbehavior and offering them free use of a train car for a future trip. But the women rejected the offer and instead sued the company Oct. 1 with the aid of McCoy, a lawyer well known in the Bay Area for taking on racial discrimination claims against BART, FedEx and other enterprises.
Despite their sour experience aboard the Wine Train, the book club women plan to visit the Napa Valley later this year as usual, Johnson said Monday afternoon.
“To be truthful, we’re a book club and we want to read books,” she said. “This is a relief for me and I’m looking forward to moving on. Drink wine, read books – that’s what we want to do.”
With reports from Register reporter Howard Yune and Angela Ruggiero of the East Bay Times.