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► Honesty Is The Best Policy In Litigation

A recent jury award of $7 billion proves the best course of action to take when being accused of any wrongdoing is to tell the truth.

Facts

On December 12, 2019, Roy James Holden, Jr., stabbed 83-year-old Betty Jo McClain Thomas to death inside her own home. He hadn’t broken into her home that day, however. He had been invited in to make repairs.

Holden worked for Charter Communications, LLC (dba Spectrum), as a field technician. Spectrum is a cable and Internet service provider that sends technicians into customers’ homes regularly. Because of the nature of the job, he virtually had access to the homes of the hundreds of customers he serviced.

The day before the tragic incident, Holden did work for Thomas at her home. On the day of the murder, he arrived at her home in a Spectrum-labeled company van, although he wasn’t clocked in as an employee.

Thomas welcomed Holden into her home, as she believed he was there to make further repairs. Instead, he stabbed her and stole her credit cards and identification. Thomas’ body was found inside her house later that night. He confessed to killing her once he was apprehended by authorities.

Spectrum’s Negligence

Thomas’ family sued Spectrum for the negligence it exhibited throughout Holden’s employment and for its behavior throughout the entire litigation process. The negligence the company exhibited was truly outrageous.

To begin, the industrywide standard when employing field technicians is to conduct background checks and employment history verifications on each applicant because of the access field technicians have to customers’ homes. Spectrum failed to conduct an employment verification on Holden, which would have uncovered red flags disqualifying him from the job.

Additionally, Spectrum allowed Holden to use a company-labeled van even when he wasn’t on the job. That practice was strictly against company policies since the van facilitated access to customers’ homes.

Furthermore, Spectrum seemingly ignored Holden’s pattern of concerning behavior, including harassing female colleagues, exhibiting a blatant disregard for safety, and exhibiting desperation over money troubles.

Finally, the company knew Holden often inappropriately revisited customers’ homes, just as he had done on the day of the murder.

Spectrum’s negligence should remind employers of the risks associated with being lackadaisical in the supervision of employment practices and employees’ behavior.

First, employers should be aware of the unique standards associated with their businesses. For example, in most scenarios, a criminal background check would be sufficient due diligence when hiring an applicant. If the applicant will be performing duties like entering customers’ homes, however, employers may be required to implement additional criteria to better guarantee the safety of their customers and employees.

Second, employers must make sure that, top to bottom, employees are adhering to company policies. Company policies are put in place for a reason: to keep employers, employees, customers, and others safe. Lackadaisically enforcing said policies leads to an opening of a Pandora’s Box of liability and harsh consequences.

Lies Worth $7 Billion

Exemplary damages are awarded as punishment for an offending party’s conduct. In the state of Texas, there’s a cap placed on the amount of exemplary damages that can be awarded to a plaintiff. If a defendant is found to have engaged in conduct that is classifiable as a felony, however, the cap is waived.

Spectrum exhibited conduct that should make every employer realize that honesty is the best policy when dealing with litigation. First, the company deleted security footage that would have shown Holden entering the company van lot on multiple occasions when he was off duty. It also altered the badge-swipe history report of the company van lot to make it look as if he had entered the lot only twice on the day of the murder.

Most importantly, Spectrum altered their terms and conditions—which Holden forged Thomas’ signature on—to include an arbitration agreement. The company attempted to limit the amount of damages it would have to pay Thomas’ family by engaging in deceitful behavior.

Ironically, the jury found Spectrum was on the hook for $337.5 million worth of compensatory damages, which seems like a bargain when compared to the self-inflicted $7 billion judgement in exemplary damages.

Takeaways

Of course, given the realities of living in a world that’s unpredictable, employers will never be able to completely eliminate the risk of litigation. You can, however, learn from the mistakes of others.

Spectrum, for instance, attempted to add an arbitration agreement to its terms after the incident had already occurred. In doing so, it not only allowed a sympathetic jury to decide the case, but it also pinned itself in a situation in which it felt inclined to lie.

You should revisit the terms and conditions in your contracts to make sure you’re adequately protected. Arbitration agreements are agents of both the employee and the employer. They save money, time, and frustration by providing a streamlined solution to issues that arise.

Additionally, tampering with schedules, deleting security footage, and any other incriminating activity is never the best course of action when facing litigation. Had Spectrum not tried to cover up their wrongdoing, it may have saved itself $7 billion.

The first thing you should do when you find your company in a hole is to stop digging. Spectrum instead chose to bring in an excavator, and they’re now tasked with appealing a $7 billion judgment.

By Jacob M. Monty. Mr. Monty is an attorney with Monty & Ramirez LLP in Houston, Texas. Monty has successfully practiced at the intersection of immigration, labor, and employment laws and is a nationally recognized authority on issues facing employers with large Hispanic workforces.

[10/2022]

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