DALLAS — A recent North Texas jury verdict involving a national cable company has established itself as a foundational example of the type of extreme punishment that can be handed down in a legally unique situation.
Tuesday, a Dallas County jury awarded $7 billion in punitive damages against Charter Communications, which also operates as Spectrum, for "systemic safety failures" in connection to the 2019 murder of 83-year-old Betty Thomas by one of the technicians. Earlier in June, a jury also said Charter had to pay 90% of $375 million in compensatory damages to Thomas' family.
During this June verdict, the jury found Charter liable for the robbery and stabbing death of Thomas by a company employee. In December 2019, officers arrested 43-year-old Roy Holden Jr., and he later pleaded guilty to murder and was sentenced to life in prison in April 2021.
The unique nature of this case
One of the key reasons such a harsh punishment came down is because, as a cable company, Spectrum had a "heightened duty" be careful in its hiring process and who they keep on staff, according to the University of North Texas at Dallas (UNT Dallas) Associate Professor of Law Michael Maslanka.
Since Spectrum employees enter the customers' homes, the company has to ensure the homeowners' safety.
"The law imposes duties upon employers," Maslanka said. "The duty of care in a case like this is greater than the normal duty of care because employees are entering the home. The question then becomes -- was that duty of care breached?"
Maslanka practiced employment law for 34 years before becoming a full-time law professor at UNT Dallas in 2015. He has represented some of the world's largest corporations and now specialized in employment law.
The complaint against Charter from the victim's family said the cable company got rid of an employee screening program that Time Warner Cable had in place when Charter bought the multiple-system operator in 2016. Spectrum allegedly hired Holden without verifying his employment history, which would have shown he lied about his work history.
Maslanka said, because of Spectrum's unique situation, he doesn't necessarily see this as "setting a precedent."
"Entering a home is part and parcel of the employee's duty," Maslanka said. "There aren't that many companies that require an entrance."
The key issue for Spectrum
For Maslanka, he said the most important part of this ruling revolves more around what happened soon before the murder than in Holden's past.
"There's one word here that's key, one word: Foreseeability," Maslanka said.
What happened before Thomas' murder is more of an issue in Spectrum's involvement with this crime had the company's "apparent authority."
In the days leading up to Thomas' murder, Holden allegedly made multiple outcries to supervisors about significant personal and financial issues having to do with a divorce that left him no money or a place to stay, according to trial testimony. He also allegedly broke down crying in a meeting telling his supervisor he was not OK.
Maslanka said Spectrum "cloaked" Holden with the authority to commit this crime with the type of access he had. While he went back to Thomas' home the day after her installation on his off day, Thomas would have had no way of knowing that. It wouldn't have been a surprise to her that he was coming back to fix an installation that didn't go well.
"Someone in that state of mind who has access to Spectrum records and to a Spectrum truck, it could be foreseeable that person would engage in a robbery," Maslanka said. "And a robbery can quickly escalate into physical harm including murder."
This verdict that surpassed $7 billion has the potential to be one of the largest lawsuits or settlements in American history, depending on what source is used or how you are defining what has to be paid.
According to an article from GJEL Accident Attorneys, this verdict would end up as the country's fourth highest verdict or settlement, right below the Volkswagen Emissions Scandal ($14.7 billion). An article from Abels & Annes, P.C. also puts this verdict at the fourth highest of all time, with the same three cases above Spectrum's case.
"In a nutshell, I think the verdict will be upheld," Maslanka said. "Punitive damages will be reduced, but I still think it will be sizable. It's designed to punish. It's designed to change, to reform."
One final bill
Attorneys said Thomas' family later received a bill from Spectrum that included a $58 charge for the murderer’s service call and continued to receive bills for service weeks after Thomas died.
Maslanka said in a case like this with a jury making a decision on punitive damages, these bills are more about what they represent than the lost payment for the family. He said that likely stuck in the minds of the jurors.
"It wasn't just the bill," Maslanka said. "It was the message the bill sent, which is these people can't run their own shop. They have this guy who murdered this woman, and now they're sending a bill after she was murdered. It's not so much the bill as what the bill represents, which is this is a dangerous company. We don't want this company to continue acting this way."
Differences in damages
The difference between punitive damages and compensatory damages involve the message being sent in court, according to Maslanka.
Compensatory damages are designed to make good on a loss suffered by a plaintiff. That can be either in lost wages or mental anguish.
Punitive damages are not designed to make the injured person "whole," Maslanka said. This is focused on punishing someone or a company involved in the case.
"They are designed to punish a wrongdoer so that the wrongdoer does not engage in the conduct again and as a message to others out there and other corporations out there—don't do this again," Maslanka said. "Don't ever do this. That's the difference."
When punitive damages reach the level that they did in this Spectrum case, Maslanka said that very often means the jury is angry about what has been done in the case.
"It's not when a jury feels sympathy, but when they feel anger," Maslanka said. "When they feel anger, they will send a message. Jurors become angry if they think that a corporate defendant has placed itself above the law."