A Dallas County jury found Charter Communications liable Tuesday for an astounding $7 billion in exemplary damages in the 2019 murder of an 83-year-old Irving woman by a Charter technician.
After less than two hours of deliberation, jurors made the award to the family of Betty Thomas.
Last month, when considering only actual damages, the same jury of four women and two men awarded Thomas’s family $375 million and found that Charter, whose telecommunication and media services are branded as Spectrum, was 90 percent responsible for Thomas’s death.
Her four adult children contended that Charter was negligent in, among other things, not checking the employment history of Roy Holden, the technician who confessed to stabbing Thomas to death and is serving a life sentence in a Texas state prison; in not adequately training supervisors to recognize psychological instability in field employees such as Holden; and in letting him keep making service calls after he acknowledged less than two weeks before the murder that marital and financial troubles were deeply upsetting him.
“This involved the death of a completely innocent customer inside her own home,” Ray T. Khirallah Jr., one of the attorneys for the Thomas family, told jurors in closing arguments Tuesday in the punitive damages phase of what was a three-week trial before Judge Juan Renteria in Dallas County Court at Law No. 5.
“You can send a message that as a community, we are not going to tolerate this,” Khirallah said.
Khirallah, in asking for punitive damages of $6 billion to $12 billion, noted that the lower figure is roughly what Charter takes in every month from its 30 million customers nationwide.
Charter’s attorney, Michael H. Bassett of the Bassett Firm in Dallas, told the jury that its $375 million verdict on actual damages, alone, was sufficient punishment for Charter.
“They heard you very loud. They heard you clearly,” he said, adding, “We hear you loud and clear that you are not happy with Charter.”
Bassett, added, “The murder of Betty Thomas was not foreseeable to Charter.”
The monthlong delay between the jury’s finding of actual damages and its exemplary-damages verdict was necessitated by one juror’s having tested positive for COVID.
Holden, now 45, told investigators he killed Thomas and robbed her because “I was broke, I was hungry. … I didn’t have no money.”
Earlier in the trial, Chris Hamilton, Khirallah’s partner at Hamilton Wingo of Dallas, told the jury Charter is “a nasty company” with “a culture of malice toward its customers.” Over the years, he said, Charter was made aware of more than 2,500 reports of thefts (including identity thefts) and 45 assaults (including the 2017 rape of a 72-year-old woman with Alzheimer’s disease) by its in-home technicians, and yet did not adequately tighten hiring, training and monitoring policies to prevent such crimes.
Particularly galling to Thomas’ family, he said, was that after her murder, Charter sent her a bill for $209.37 in past-due cable and internet charges. He called the company’s conduct “offensive.”
Bassett said, “For whatever mistakes those at Charter made, this was not something that any Charter employee wanted to happen.”
The jury’s $7 billion verdict must be approved and entered as a judgment by Renteria.
An appeal of both the jury’s $375 million award for actual damages and its $7 billion award of exemplary damages is all but certain.