$7.3 billion is heartless and cruel
Like sending your customer's account to debt collection after she was robbed and murdered by your own service technician.
This would be an unbelievable story if not for there being a cable TV operator involved.
Charter Communications must pay out $7 billion in damages after one of its Spectrum cable technicians robbed and killed an elderly woman, a jury decided Tuesday. Betty Thomas, 83, was stabbed to death by Roy Holden Jr in December 2019. He had dropped by her home in Irving, Texas, on a service call after she reported a problem …
What's often ignored in stories about US court actions is that the jury always finds a massive amount that is never upheld in the end. Juries are not qualified to make a sensible valuation, but a judge can only ever revise down, not up. The jury award is therefore a ceiling, not an actual award.
that the jury always finds a massive amount that is never upheld in the end.
Juries are not qualified to make a sensible valuation, but a judge can only ever revise down, not up.
There are judges who let jury findings stand, e.g. the judge in the circuit court review of the Johnson & Johnson talcum powder/ovarian cancer case in Missouri left the jury’s 4.69 G$ finding unchanged. (The state court of appeals later reduced the finding to 2.1 G$; J&J appealed it up to the US Supreme Court, but they declined to hear it, so the 2.1 G$ finding was the final amount, divided between 22 plaintiffs, living and dead.)
putting all their assets into one, and the $2.1 billion liability into another so that it could then declare bankruptcy and never pay anything?
It used a feature of Texas law called a “divisive merger” to form an entity to hold the liability, but J&J also established a 2 G$ trust for (and diverted 350 M$ of royalties to) the entity to pay off the liability as part of the entity’s bankruptcy proceedings. That action was doubtlessly taken to limit J&J’s liability to other talcum powder/ovarian cancer lawsuits.
I don't understand. How is 7.3 billion dollars an excessive award? After all, the medical care the grandmother in question will require to recover from being murdered, as it will require a massive medical research program, will clearly cost far more than that.
Is this just opportunistic, or is the US judicial system finally losing its mind ?
If every murder is billed in the billions, who is going to pay ?
It seems clear to me that the only reason for this astronomical amount is because there is a big company to pin the blame on. Even if the company didn't do complete due diligence, a sentence in the billions seems a bit much to me.
And since when is an employee with an access card supposed to be deprived of access if they're not working ?
I'd like to see how much administrative hassle it would create if every single company had to suspend employee access for employees taking half a day off.
The HR department would certainly have to be doubled.
What were supposed to be the "red flags" that would have led to the company terminating his employment anyway - getting fired from your previous job? Or does complaining about having no money for a divorce mean that the employees access card should be suspended in case they decide to go rob and kill an old lady?
There is certainly some compensation due from the company as he gained access due to his work, and some tightening of their HR procedures, but $7.3 billion is massively out of proportion to their culpability.
Read the linked-to article. Holden (the perp) had meetings with his employers in desperation of his current living conditions: getting a divorce, broke and distraught
“So I had stopped there because I was broke,” Holden told Irving detectives, according to court documents. “I was hungry.”
At one point of breaking down in tears during one of the meetings, he felt so desperate.
"During the civil trial, testimony noted that Holden made multiple outcries to supervisors about significant personal and financial issues having to do with a divorce that left him no money, even crying at a meeting."
From appearances, what did Charter do? Nothing, of course. No time off with pay to straighten his life out, no financial assistance in terms of additional pay or even just making more hours available to increase income, no mental assistance in terms of oversight or even just peer support...nothing.
So the accusation was that Charter knew this man was a mental mess and desperate in his financial situation. But they not only did nothing to try to help his situation, they also did not secure any of their property from possibly misuse by a completely mentally distraught man...with tragic results (he accessed company property after work hours, took a company van unauthorized, left him access to all company tools including potentially lethal ones).
In the EU such actions by a corporation have accounted to a minimum charge of "neglect"; I don't know if it's $7.3bn worth of "neglect", but there you go.
The company was trusted to send strangers - its employees - into vulnerable people's homes to provide services that they needed and paid for. The company had a duty of care to safeguard these vulnerable people, who assumed that it was performing its duty of care whenever they let in one of its technicians. The company failed to abide by its duty of care, and exposed customers to employees who were dishonest, who committed crimes against them, and who constituted a potential danger to their lives; this failing culminated in one of these vulnerable people being murdered.
It strikes at the very core of the way of life we live, in which people, especially vulnerable people, depend on total strangers to provide services and repair things for them. It exposes the fallacy of all the safeguards that turn out to be merely imaginary, and it creates a serious threat of destabilisation of modern society as a result.
Against that, $ 7.3 billion is not an inordinate penalty, as its sheer size is likely to encourage other trusted service provider companies to improve their procedures and generally enhance the security of millions of people across the Western World.
If this was an individual and they were responsible for a murder in Texas they could be killed, and would certainly not get away with paying one years income. Charter is getting away lightly with this fine (that they will never have to actually pay anyway).
There is an individual who was responsible, and he is currently serving a life sentence in a Texas prison.
Charter are as responsible for this guy's crime as the Car salesman who sold Charter the van. If he didnt have that Van, he couldnt have got to her house, could he?
It is frankly ridiculous that the courts ruled against them. He had no criminal conviction, but apparently being fired from a previous job means you should never be employed again according to the Family's lawyers.
We have no information why he was fired, the company might have been downsizing, he might have been sleeping with the bosses wife (could explain the divorce mentioned), or he might have been stealing from the company or it's customers. BUT he did not have a cirminal conviction, so it's unlikely to have been the last. Whatever the case, Charter are unlikely to ever know why he was fired. Even if they called up the company that fired him to ask, in this day and age, they would not be likely to find out the actual reasons. Preventing someone from getting a job is likely to see you get sued, so companies keep their mouth shut these days.
Frankly, trying to blame anyone for this apart from the murdering scumbag, just reeks of payday seeking. Disgusting...
Reasons were presented as to why he should have been fired long before: he had been robbing other customers of the cable company. Of course, maybe the cable company had no knowledge of this. But even if they're only 1% responsible, $730 billion is still not enough money to raise someone from the dead. So the victim will still not recieve the medical care needed to recover fully from the attack she recieved, and that is the primary way in which justice has not been done.
Yeah, just ignore the fact that they have duty of care for both employees and customers, and ignore:
"It was further alleged that he had stolen credit cards and checks from elderly Spectrum subscribers, and that the corporation turned a blind eye to a pattern of theft by its installers and technicians."
The award of billions is excessive but they are certainly culpable if the allegations are true.
To quote the Charter spokesman from the article:
"including a thorough pre-employment criminal background check — which showed no arrests, convictions or other criminal behavior. Nor did anything in Mr Holden's performance after he was hired suggest he was capable of the crime he committed, including more than 1,000 completed service calls with zero customer complaints about his behavior."
1000 completed service calls and ZERO customer complaints about his behaviour. How does that tally with "it was alleged that he had stolen credit cards and checks from elderly Spectrum subscribers"?
The company would at least have records to show if any complaints were made. And I have no doubt that those records had to be shown in court. Whereas who alleges he was doing this thieving? Where is their proof? And why did none of these elderly victims complain to Charter, the firm employing him, and for whom he was doing the work, when he supposedly stole these things? That does not make sense.
The second part of the quote you wrote above "and that the corporation turned a blind eye to a pattern of theft by its installers and technicians." feels to me like some Lawyer is claiming that because some installers and technicians have committed thefts, then ALL installers are thieves, and therefore this guy must have been one too. Very much tarring with a broad brush.
Anyway, If the company had received complaints and not acted, then I'd agree they ignored their duty of care. BUT no lawyer for the firm is going to make a statement that says they recived ZERO complaints, if that was not true, because they do not want to be accused of Perjury. So to me I dont believe the firm ignored their duty of care, they performed a background check and found no arrests or convictions. During the guys work, they had no complaints about his behaviour. What then should they have done? Everybody who splits from their partner should be fired? Anyone who starts experiencing monetary difficulty can no longer be trusted, and so should be sacked? Even if there were rumours that he was stealing, but if no one complained and there was no evidence, what can the firm do? You cant operate based on rumour and heresay, and quite frankly any allegation not backed up by evidence should have been thrown out of court.
This is (based on the information in this report) quite frankly a stupid ruling...
"Charter are as responsible for this guy's crime as the Car salesman who sold Charter the van"
What if the van had faults that lead to an accident and a death? The dealer and/or the salesman could be on the hook for that. It's all down to proving who knew what and when.
I think what you're missing is this was not about "how much money one life is worth" (danegeld).
Charter was systemically-negligent, and the bulk of the award -- likely -- was for punitive damages. It takes a penalty commensurate with the income of a corporation to motivate them to modify their behavior. In that respect, you are correct about big corporations and deep pockets: if Joe's Hometown Cable Company with three employees did the same thing, the punitive damages would have been orders of magnitude less. And that's reasonable, too, because Joe needs far less economic pain to motivate him to mend his ways.
As for keys and access, how hard can this be? Employee goes to work, gets keys, access cards, etc. from his boss, makes his rounds, comes back to the office, gives the keys back to his boss, and goes home for the day.
If a corporation is deemed to be responsible to the amounts given in the article for an employee who goes off the reservation, how much more money should a US state government be paying out for the death of a citizen due to an attorney general's "no cash bail" catch and release program for criminals who then murder someone after they are turned back out on the street?
I have every sympathy for the family for this horrible crime, but I'm not following how it is the corporation is liable for the damage amounts in question, even considering their heinous inability to stop the billing for the service visit that resulted in the woman's death.
If failing to foresee a murderous rampage is going to be a cause for awarding damages, the attorneys general of the various states are going to have a lot to answer for.
What if Charter laid this individual off because he was muttering to himself and had various conspiracy theory red flags, and he then went on to murder someone in a robbery because he no longer had a job? Would people be forgiving of Charter or would they blame them in that case as well?
Quote "I'd like to see how much administrative hassle it would create if every single company had to suspend employee access for employees taking half a day off."
Amazon does it to keep union organizers (employee's) off site when not on the clock. NLRB nailed them to the wall for doing so, but it is possible to do.
I wonder how Charters HR department feels about all of this( not really ), I bet they already have a straw man setup to take the fall for this.
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On one hand I don't think that it was predictable that an employee would turn out to be a murderer (albeit if there was a police conviction that he had previously stolen from customers why was he still employed?).
On the other hand, it's good to see a judgment that might actually get noticed by the company. Also it's a cable company... so...
While cable companies are, of course, all bastards; and continuing to charge a deceased customer is apparently common practice (Sky did it to my father for months despite multiple calls); I don't think that it is fair to hold an employer responsible for the actions of a deranged adult employee -- and $7 billion is another of those stupid numbers pulled out of the collective rear ends of the US court system. The employer had no way of knowing that the person was planning on going out on a murder spree.
The most the employer is guilty of is not having a properly-implemented vetting process for employees expected to be visiting vulnerable customers, and in this case the employee had taken a vehicle without permission, was acting outside employed hours, and against company rules (well, I assume they have a rule similar to 'dont kill the customers')
Does that mean that any crime victim can now sue the culprit's employer for $billions?
Putting the actual amount aside. When I let in a uniformed, identified service person to my home - I expect, nay demand that the company he/she is representing has taken reasonable actions to ensure they are trustworthy and any complaint about them is taken seriously - and if replicated - fired. The fact that he/she is 'off-duty' won't be known to the person inviting them in and is irrelevant unless the uniform/van were stolen (impersonation).
The sheer number of red flags missed and the inhumane treatment of the family should ensure a significant loss to the company. A loss that will hurt and ensure reform if it is to survive.
Perhaps, in this case, the jury decided it is irredeemable and best put out of business to safeguard others in the community. I wasn't here to hear the full horror so who of us here knows whether that is justified or not?
Another one ignoring "It was further alleged that he had stolen credit cards and checks from elderly Spectrum subscribers, and that the corporation turned a blind eye to a pattern of theft by its installers and technicians."
Also every employer has a duty of care toward their customers. They apparently knew the guy was mentally unstable and so yes, if they continued to send him into the homes of the vulnerable, they are responsible.
Your first paragraph includes the word "alleged". Assuming that was alleged in court, then it came with proof and was accepted or rejected by the court, so is or is not relevant in the final outcome.
I agree with your second paragraph. The company was aware of his situation and appear to have mdae no effort whatsoever to help, thus failing miserably in their duty of care to employees.
It's only fair.
It's also happening in the US. So allowing victims to sue firearms manufacturers for deaths caused by their products. Which will probably get stomped on as soon as it's applied against Raytheon, Lockheed etc for deaths caused by their weapons.
that they were able to assemble a jury at all.
You'd think that Charter's legal representation would have identified that there's noone in the US who's opinion towards them and other cable companies isn't prejudiced by experience...
7.3bn is way too much, but I've no sympathy for them - they clearly skipped employment checks before sending the guy into people's homes, and then ignored red flags during his employment. That they topped it off by sending the victim to collections really is the cherry on top of the turd.
It's not just them though. That the US system allows for a divorce to leave someone penniless and desperate is also a major issue - there are enough ways people can end up like that without the legal system applying disproportionate remedies.
Ironic really, given the disproportionate remedy that's been awarded at the end of the story.
"That they topped it off by sending the victim to collections really is the cherry on top of the turd."
More likely, just a lack of communication in their internal systems. That sort of thing happens all the time in many medium to large size companies. Poorly designed systems that don't take account of anything unusual.
I have no love for the broadband company, but I dislike the hysterical use of emotional language in lawsuits.
If the company had sent him to the premises on that day, perhaps I'd lean more in that direction. But it sounds like the employee had no criminal record, and being fired once in your career is hardly an indicator for murder. I don't foresee any risk assessment that could predict "man with no violent history is getting divorced and may stab someone to death off duty".
Sure, there's compensation to be paid, but the jury has overestimated this. $10m and a mental health initiative at work is more than enough to look after the family.
We as a society have made a decision.
In acts of negligence, punishment is related to the consequences arising from the negligence, not the potential consequences nor the reasonably foreseeable consequences.
This is why the penalty for hitting a child while drunk-driving is higher than if you are caught drunk-driving without being in an accident.
In this case, the company were demonstrably negligent, and the consequences of that negligence were extreme. They got in the car drunk, as it were.
Negligence is a curious topic.
For example, take the construction trade, a high % age of construction workers will have had some combination of minor arrest / fired / criminal history / divorce / mental health issues. Divorce and money problems alone would likely account for 50% + of all US citizens into this "danger category". Do we ban all people who have ever had mental health issues from working? It won't help depressed people with their financial problems.
Usually, I tend to think of negligence as a foreseeable outcome. You know, don't give employees the correct tools and you are responsible for the accidents that occur. I'm vaguely on board with the idea of "compensated based on the outcome" idea, although it troubles me slightly, as I tend to prefer to focus on the actual deed, not the potential outcomes.
Compensation based on outcome is one thing, but we're also talking about punitive damages here, not only compensation, and in the case of drunk-driving, it's 100% a matter of punishment and not compensation.
We can be a bit inconsistent on that, and I'm not yet convinced that punishment based on outcome works -- if a particular form of negligence is something you learn you can get away with, the maximum penalty in the event of the worst possible outcome is not really going to constitute much of a disincentive...
The article mentions a previous sacking as a potential red flag. If they would not have employed him had they followed the process that they should have, then the murder would not have happened had they followed the process that they should have, and is therefore a(n unforeseen) consequence of the negligence.
My suspicion in these cases (and I'm fairly certain it is the case) is that news journalism has resorted to PR/agenda driven news. i.e. the law firm puts out a series of factual statements and opinion that backs up their own agenda/business case, while neglecting to mention the parts of the case that do not support their legal case.
The same will occur on the other side, as the other team is incentivised to do exactly the same thing with sympathetic journalists.
I see no reason why any HR department in the world would be legally mandated to check that regular staff have "been fired" in the past. But it sounds like a legal angle where the lawyer is trying to claim that this in itself is "negligence". How far do we take this? Do we want kindergarten child psychology reports on all field staff?
"Mr. Holden performed a service call in Ms. Thomas’ home the day before her Dec. 2019 murder. 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."
"It was further alleged that he had stolen credit cards and checks from elderly Spectrum subscribers, and that the corporation turned a blind eye to a pattern of theft by its installers and technicians."
Was any of that proven in court? If so, then that is 100% criminal negligence on the part of his employer. Anyone who is accused of theft from a customer should be immediately taken off of customer facing duties whilst it is investigated.
The Jury seemed to think that they had been criminally negligent and from what I have read, 2 different judges agreed. Sounds like a typical case of corporate incompetence coupled with them just not giving a rats ass about their customers. I imagine they will soon be having a shake-up of their HR procedures and probably a culling of incompetent middle management.
As for the award amount, it's the US legal system so everything is blown massively out of proportion and then later reduced to something approaching reality.
The part that concerns me is the use of the word "alleged", if it was reported 10x then the balance of probability suggests he was doing it. Whereas if one elderly person alleged it, well frankly the elderly can be forgetful.
Reading up elsewhere, it seems there is more to the story. On one side, the chap involved had never even been arrested, yet alone charged with anything.
However the Charter lawyers were dragged into court over an apparent attempt at forging documents, trying to force the case out of court (presumably forging a signature from the family to take it out of court). This may have irritated the judge and jury.
"Jurors agreed that after Ms. Thomas' grieving family filed a lawsuit, 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"
"Was any of that proven in court?"
The sentence before the one quoted starts with "It was alleged in evidence". In that case it seems likely that the allegation of theft was given as a sworn statement. In the absence of anything to the contrary I think this needs to be accepted as proven, especially in the view of the outcome.
" ... and that the corporation turned a blind eye to a pattern of theft by its installers and technicians."
Installers and technicians in plural? I'd say Charter has some explaining to do. There may not have been any prior complaints against Holden. But if the "blind eye" bit is true, it appears that they had no process in place to deal with problem employees in general. One that might have flagged this guy before the murder.
On the one hand $7.3 billion is a bit extreme, on the other hand, it is only one year's profits, and I'm sure the family will put it to better use than
buying a couple of senators and ducking taxes lobbying and moving it off-shore.
On the gripping hand, only $300 million is for the negligence leading to the homicide, the other $7B is for being assholes in court (presenting forged documents to the court, sending the account into collections, etc.). And I am all for charging large amounts/percentages of income for asshattery.
The forged document should not be that hard to trace back to source. Even in the US, contempt of court is taken very seriously. The lawyer who presented it could be disbarred and imprisoned if responsible. If not, s/he will have no hesitation throwing someone under the bus when her/his reputation is on the line. Who presented it to the lawyer? That person is either guilty or knows who it came from, and so on down the line. Considering the threat of court action, that should concentrate some minds right back the the guilty party. Everyone in that evidence chain needs to swear in front of the judge how and where they got that letter.
I keep seeing typos etc. in El Reg articles.
In this story a superfluous "in" as in "behind in bars", spending the rest of your life behind bars is pretty bad, but spending the rest of your life in bars sounds pretty good. In another article "Service" instead of "Surface"...
Where did the corrections button go? Did I miss something?
Yes, just like I missed when my parents moved and didn't leave a forwarding address...
The button is gone, but if you're really all fired up to go the extra mile to report a typo\spelling or grammar, the link is on that page. Personally, this just goes to show how El Reg has changed ever so covertly over the past couple of years...
I prefer lampooning the typos and non-embedded videos in the comments these days, too much trouble to go back to the link above start an email...
So many commenting and ignoring "It was further alleged that he had stolen credit cards and checks from elderly Spectrum subscribers, and that the corporation turned a blind eye to a pattern of theft by its installers and technicians." and "the court heard how Holden would break down crying at work, at one point was convinced he was a former Dallas Cowboys football player, suffered from insomnia, and was probably sleeping overnight in his Spectrum van."
If they knew that the perp was mentally unstable and aware of thefts then the company IS responsible. As for whether those allegations were true or not, that's what juries decide. In this case they obviously decided that the company was negligent for the given reasons. Being negligent, they are responsible.
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