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(Reuters) - Eleven women from a predominantly black book club who were kicked off a California wine train in August sued the company on Thursday for racial discrimination, seeking $11 million in damages.
In the lawsuit filed against the Napa Valley Wine Train in the U.S. District Court in Northern California, 11 members of the Sistahs on the Reading Edge Book Club called the experience degrading and surreal. All but one of the women are African-American.
"African-American adults are more likely to be shushed at, stared at, and kicked out of places where white people perceive that they do not fit," the complaint said.
The group was removed from the vintage train on Aug. 22 after other passengers complained the group was too loud. The expulsion sparked widespread anger on social media.
The controversy has unfolded as the United States grapples with persistent issues of racism and discrimination following high-profile police killings of unarmed black men over the last year, which triggered waves of protest and a renewed civil rights movement under the banner of "Black Lives Matter."
The company said in a statement on Thursday that it has hired a former FBI agent to investigate the incident, adding that it takes "allegations of discrimination very seriously." The business has been under new ownership since September and the new owners are those listed in the complaint.
The lawsuit also accuses the company of defamation and libel for publishing an inaccurate social media post describing the women as being verbally and physically abusive to other passengers. The post was later removed.
Wine Train CEO Anthony Giaccio issued a public apology along with a pledge to offer staff diversity training and host the women as guests on the train.
But the women said at a press conference on Thursday that the response was not sufficient to erase the humiliating experience of being forced off the train and met by police.
The train has run as a tourist attraction since 1864, offering dining services to passengers as the antique railcars cut through the scenic vineyards of California's wine country, according to the train's website.
Reporting by Daina Beth Solomon in Los Angeles; Editing by Curtis Skinner