“The duty of care in a case like this is greater than the normal duty of care because the employees come into the house,” said UNT Dallas professor Michael Maslanka.
DALLAS — A recent North Texas jury verdict involving a national cable company has stood out as a seminal example of the kind of extreme punishment that can be handed down in a legally unique situation.
On Tuesday, a Dallas County jury awarded $7 billion in punitive damages to Charter Communications, which also operates as Spectrum, for “systemic security lapses” in connection with the 2019 murder of Betty Thomas, 83 years old, by one of the technicians. Earlier in June, a jury also ruled that Charter should pay 90% of the $375 million in compensatory damages to Thomas’ family.
In that June verdict, the jury found Charter responsible for the robbery and stabbing death of Thomas by a company employee. In In December 2019, officers arrested Roy Holden Jr., 43, and he later pleaded guilty to murder and was sentenced to life in prison in April 2021.
The uniqueness of this case
According to University of North Texas at Dallas (UNT Dallas) Associate Professor of Law Michael Maslanka.
Since Spectrum employees enter customers’ homes, the company must ensure the safety of homeowners.
“The law imposes obligations on employers,” Maslanka said. “The duty of care in a case like this is greater than the normal duty of care because the employees come into the house. The question then becomes – was that duty of care breached?”
Maslanka practiced employment law for 34 years before becoming a full-time professor of law at UNT Dallas in 2015. He has represented some of the largest companies in the world and now specializes in employment law.
The lawsuit 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 multi-system operator in 2016. Spectrum reportedly hired Holden without background checks, which allegedly showed that he had lied about his employment history.
Maslanka said that due to Spectrum’s unique situation, he doesn’t necessarily see this as “setting a precedent.”
“Entering a house is an integral part of the employee’s duty,” Maslanka said. “There aren’t many businesses that require entry.”
The key problem for Spectrum
For Maslanka, he said the most important part of that decision revolved more around what happened shortly before the murder than in Holden’s past.
“There is one word here that is essential, one word: Predictability,” Maslanka said.
What happened before Thomas’ murder is more of an issue in Spectrum’s involvement in this crime had the “apparent authority” of the company.
In the days leading up to Thomas’ murder, Holden allegedly made several yells at supervisors about significant personal and financial problems related to a divorce that left him with no money or home, according to trial testimony. He would also have broke down crying in a meeting telling his supervisor he was unwell.
Maslanka said Spectrum “masked” Holden with the power to commit this crime with the kind of access he had. As he returned to Thomas the day after he was set up on his day off, Thomas would have had no way of knowing. It wouldn’t have come as a surprise to her if he had come back to fix a malfunctioning installation.
“Someone in that state of mind who has access to Spectrum records and a Spectrum truck, it could be foreseeable that that person would engage in theft,” Maslanka said. “And a theft can quickly escalate into physical harm, including murder.”
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This verdict, which exceeded $7 billion, has the potential to be one of the largest lawsuits or settlements in American history, depending on which source you use or how you define what should be paid.
According to an article by GJEL Accident Attorneys, this verdict would end up being the fourth highest verdict or settlement in the country, just below the Volkswagen emissions scandal ($14.7 billion). An article by Abels & Annes, PC also ranks this verdict fourth all-time, with the same three cases above Spectrum’s case.
“In a nutshell, I think the verdict will stand,” Maslanka said. “Punitive damages will be reduced, but I still think they will be significant. It’s designed to punish. It’s designed to change, to reform.”
A final bill
Lawyers said Thomas’ family later received a bill from Spectrum that included a $58 charge for the killer’s service call and continued to receive bills for weeks of service after Thomas’ death.
Maslanka said that in a case like this with a jury deciding on punitive damages, those bills are more about what they represent than the payment lost to the family. He said that probably stuck in the minds of the jurors.
“It wasn’t just the bill,” Maslanka said. “That was the message sent by the bill, that 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. That’s not “It’s not so much the bill as what the bill represents, which is to say that this is a dangerous business. We don’t want this business to continue to act in this way.”
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The difference between punitive damages and compensatory damages involves sending the message to the court, according to Maslanka.
Compensatory damages are intended to compensate for a loss suffered by a plaintiff. It can be either lost wages or mental anguish.
Punitive damages aren’t designed to make the injured person “whole,” Maslanka said. It’s about punishing a person or company involved in the case.
“They’re designed to punish a wrongdoer so that the wrongdoer doesn’t get into driving again and as a message to others and other societies out there – don’t do it again,” Maslanka said. “Never do that. That’s the difference.”
When punitive damages reach the level they did in this Spectrum case, Maslanka said it very often means the jury is angry at what was done in the case.
“It’s not when a jury feels sympathy, it’s when they feel anger,” Maslanka said. “When they feel angry, they send a message. Jurors get angry if they think a corporate defendant has placed themselves above the law.”