A customer who watched as two black diners at a Denny's eatery in Los Angeles were asked to prepay for their meals testified Wednesday he believes the 2012 incident was motivated by racism.
"It seemed obvious to me, yes," Bradley Sax told a Los Angeles Superior Court jury tasked with deciding the couple's civil rights claim. "They were black, I'm white, I've never been asked to prepay."
A lawsuit filed in August 2014 by Renee Hebert and Henry Williams went to trial this week in Los Angeles Superior Court. Sax took the stand on the second day.
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Hebert and Williams allege Ali Rahman, the manager of the Denny's on Vermont Avenue just north of Wilshire Boulevard, did not ask any other customers to prepay for their meals and that they were targeted because of their ethnicity.
An internal restaurant video of their May 7, 2014, visit has generated nearly 5,000 hits since being uploaded to YouTube within the last week.
Attorney Michael Stein, who represents Denny's and Rahman, said the manager made a mistake with his demand, apologized to the couple and offered to return the $80 Williams gave him.
He said Rahman was concerned after learning from the couple's server about the size of their order, which totaled more than $83, because the Koreatown location had prior problems with people leaving without paying.
But lawyers for Williams and Hebert said the retraction of the prepayment demand does not mean Rahman and the restaurant chain can escape liability.
Sax said he was sitting at a table across from the booth where the couple were seated and could hear most of the conversations between Rahman, Hebert and Williams.
Sax said he was disturbed by what he heard.
"I thought it was appalling for someone in that year and time to be discriminated against like that," Sax testified.
He said he approached the couple to give him his name and phone number.
"I went over there because it made me feel terrible watching it," Sax said.
He said Williams and Hebert seemed "shocked and stunned" at first, but that he was impressed by how calm they remained.
"I know others wouldn't have reacted that way and I know I wouldn't have reacted that way," Sax told the jury.
Sax said he saw a similar prepayment demand made of a black customer by a server in the same restaurant about two to three weeks later.
Asked by Stein if he hoped Williams and Hebert will win their case, Sax initially replied, "I would like to see justice done." He later added, "I guess so. I didn't think what happened to them was right."
In a pretrial deposition, Williams testified that when Rahman apologized for the demand, he offered a complimentary dessert.
"I said, 'That's OK,'" Williams testified. "I said, 'We are just here to enjoy our meal. We just want to eat and get out of here.'"
Williams said the couple was so bothered by Rahman coming back to the table so often, he asked the server to box their food and they took it with them.
In 1994, Denny's agreed to pay more than $54 million to settle lawsuits filed by thousands of black customers who had been refused service or been forced to wait longer or pay more than white guests.