Jury sends message to Charter with $7 billion verdict over murder of customer

Enlarge / Charter Spectrum cable van in West Lake Hills, Texas, in April 2019.

A Texas jury has ordered Charter Communications to pay $7 billion in punitive damages to the family of an 83-year-old woman murdered in her home by a Spectrum cable technician. The Dallas County Court jury returned the $7 billion verdict on Tuesday after previously finding the Charter liable for $337.5 million in compensatory damages.

The damages could be reduced by a judge. Charter says it shouldn’t be held liable for the murder and that it plans to appeal. The jury, which found in the earlier phase of the case that Charter’s negligence was a major cause of death, reportedly reached the $7 billion verdict after less than two hours of deliberation.

“This was a shocking breach of faith by a company that sends workers inside millions of homes every year,” one of the family’s lawyers, Chris Hamilton, said in a press release Tuesday. “The jury in this case was thoughtful and attentive to the evidence. This verdict just reflects the extensive evidence regarding the nature of the harm caused by Charter Spectrum’s gross negligence and reckless misconduct.”

Former Spectrum technician Roy Holden pleaded guilty to the 2019 murder of customer Betty Thomas and was sentenced to life in prison in April 2021. He robbed and murdered Thomas one day after a service call. The press release described the murder as follows:

Mr. Holden performed a service call in Ms. Thomas ‘home her the day before her December 2019 murder her. Although Charter contended he was off-duty the following day, he managed to learn that Ms.Thomas had reported that she was still having problems with her service and used his company key card to enter a Charter Spectrum secured vehicle lot and drove his Charter Spectrum van to her house. Once inside, while fixing her fax machine, the victim, Ms. Thomas, caught the field tech stealing her credit cards from her purse. The Charter Spectrum field tech, Roy Holden, then brutally stabbed the 83-year-old customer with a utility knife supplied by Charter Spectrum and went on a spending spree with her credit cards.

Charter accused of forgery

The press release further said that “Charter Spectrum attorneys used a forged document to try to force the lawsuit into a closed-door arbitration where the results would have been secret and damages for the murder would have been limited to the amount of Ms. Thomas’s final bill. The jury found that Charter Spectrum committed for beyond a reasonable doubt, conduct that under a first-degree law felony Texas.”

The Dallas Morning News reported that verdict papers show the “jury agreed that Charter ‘knowingly and intentionally’ forged the documents.”

Trial testimony also revealed that Charter “hired Roy Holden without verifying his employment history, which would have revealed that he had lied about his work history,” and that “supervisors ignored a series of red flags, including Mr. Holden’s own written pleas to upper management for help because of severe distress over financial and family problems,” the family’s lawyers said. Additionally, “Charter Spectrum’s employees admitted at trial the field tech’s theft and crimes against the victim began while he was on duty and in the course and scope of his employment the day before.”

Damages likely to be lowered based on precedent

The large amount of punitive damages awarded raises the likelihood that a judge will lower the penalty. “Punitive damages like that are never paid—they’re always reduced,” said Texas civil-trial lawyer W. Mark Lanier, according to a Wall Street Journal article. “They’re a message of how frustrated the jury was with egregious facts.”

The WSJ also quoted California-based consumer attorney Brian Kabateck as saying, “It’s a breathtaking amount of punitive damages… I think the shelf life of this verdict is going to be very short.” Kabateck said he suspects “this judge would probably take a very dim view of the size of this verdict and probably cut it down.”

A 2003 ruling by the US Supreme Court said that “in practice, few awards exceeding a single-digit ratio between punitive and compensatory damages, to a significant degree, will satisfy due process.” Such ratios are not binding, but “[s]ingle-digit multipliers are more likely to behave with due process, while still achieving the State’s goals of deterrence and retribution, than awards with ratios in range of 500 to 1,” the ruling said.

A US District Court judge in California cited that precedent in April when he reduced the jury’s punitive-damages verdict from $130 million to $13.5 million, a nine-to-one ratio to the compensatory damages of $1.5 million. In that case, involving racist abuse suffered by a Tesla factory worker, the judge wrote that a nine-to-one ratio “to the size of compensatory damages is warranted and constitutional.”

In the Charter case, the nine-to-one ratio would still result in punitive damages of over $3 billion.

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