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Latino Wins $30,000 Award Over Cartoon : Transit: The bus driver said the caricature of him in an employee newsletter was demeaning and racist. He demanded an apology but RTD officials refused. So he sued.

October 04, 1990|ERIC LICHTBLAU | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When veteran RTD bus driver Raul Serrano opened his in-house newsletter more than two years ago to find a caricature of him and a distraught, sombrero-topped rider, he deemed it an affront to all Latinos and demanded a formal apology.

His supervisors at the Southern California Rapid Transit District balked. So instead, the district was hit Wednesday with a jury's award of $30,000 in damages for defamation against the 45-year-old bus driver from Rancho Cucamonga.

"This is a moral victory," said Serrano, who still drives a bus for the district but in a different region because of tensions raised by the case. "It's worth it. But I still haven't gotten my apology--that's all I ever wanted was for them to say: 'Hey, Raul, we're sorry.' "

A 15-year veteran of the city's streets who used to drive routes in East Los Angeles, Serrano, who is Mexican-American, was featured in the "Operator's Humor Corner" of a 1988 in-house newsletter distributed to 350 workers in an Eastside division. In it, a cartoon shows Serrano about to pick up a skeleton-like passenger in a sombrero and serape.

As the bus nears, the would-be passenger says: "Is about time for Serrano to show up. I was ready to die."

As recently as Tuesday, as the defamation case went to a Superior Court jury in Los Angeles, RTD had the chance from Serrano's side to settle the dispute with a formal apology and $3,000 in attorney's fees. During in-chamber talks, Judge Eric Younger urged that the case be settled, too, according to Serrano's lawyer. But RTD lawyers refused.

In court papers, RTD attorneys defended the Serrano cartoon as "a joke not to be taken seriously." After the verdict, they and individual RTD managers, who oversaw printing of the newsletter and were named as co-defendants, declined to comment. Said district spokeswoman Andrea Greene: "It's too early for us to say anything about this yet because we're still studying our options. That's all I can say."

Nonetheless, even some directors past and present of RTD's own board acknowledged that they were offended by the newsletter and could understand the award. Said Nick Patsaouras, president of the RTD's Board of Directors: "I found the behavior of one employee discriminating against another to be deplorable, inexcusable, insensitive, and prejudicial. . . . But one isolated incident does not reflect the overall policy of the (RTD) organization. . . ."

For Serrano, the jury's verdict does little to overcome the embarrassment and frustration he said have followed in the wake of the cartoon.

"I was furious when I first saw that cartoon," he said. "It was demeaning, it was uncaring, it was ridiculing and racist, and it was singling me out for not caring about the hard-working people that I drive. To this day, all I've ever wanted was an apology."

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