Charter Communications to settle lawsuit over customer's murder for less than $262 million

STAMFORD — Spectrum-brand services provider Charter Communications has agreed to settle for less than $262 million a lawsuit related to a field technician’s murder of a Dallas-area customer about three years ago, a small fraction of the multibillion-dollar judgment that the company originally faced.  

The tentative settlement would resolve litigation that was punctuated by a Texas jury’s orders last summer for the Stamford-based telecommunications giant to pay $7 billion in punitive damages and $375 million in compensatory damages. The jury found that Charter acted negligently in the death of 83-year-old Betty Thomas, who was robbed and fatally stabbed by a then-Charter technician in her home in Irving, Texas, in December 2019.       

Last September, a judge issued an order that lowered the damages to $1.15 billion — a ruling that was supported by Thomas’ family, as they sought to make it more difficult for Charter to win an appeal. Then, after making a series of decreasing settlement demands, the plaintiffs filed last month a court notice to further reduce the judgment to $262 million, comprising $87 million in “actual” damages and $175 million in punitive damages, according to Charter’s 2022 annual report.   

“On Jan. 24, 2023, and upon the insistence and demand of its insurers, (Charter) reached a tentative settlement of this lawsuit at an amount substantially less than the reduced judgment and within (Charter’s) insurance coverage,” said the annual report, which was filed last Friday. “In the event the settlement is not ultimately finalized, (Charter) will continue to vigorously defend this lawsuit, including pursuing all available appeals.” 

Charter declined to specify the amount of the settlement. The Dallas-based law firm Hamilton Wingo, which has represented the Thomas family in the case, also declined to comment on the amount or other terms of the agreement. 

“The civil case has been resolved,” Ray T. Khirallah Jr., a partner at Hamilton Wingo, said in a written statement Tuesday. “I apologize that we are not able to say anything at this time other than that the civil case has been resolved.”

Charter has not questioned the culpability of the technician, Roy Holden, who pleaded guilty to murder and was sentenced in 2021 to life in prison. But it has denied that it shared responsibility for Thomas’ death. 

“The responsibility for this horrible act rests solely with Mr. Holden, who was not on duty, and we are grateful he is in prison for life,” Charter said in a statement last June, after the initial ruling. 

At the same time, Charter maintained that customers could be confident in its vetting of technicians. The company, which ranked No. 69 on last year’s Fortune 500 list of the largest U.S. corporations, delivers its Spectrum-brand cable, phone and internet services to more than 32 million customers across 41 states. 

“We are committed to the safety of all our customers and took the necessary steps (with Holden), including a thorough pre-employment criminal background check — which showed no arrests, convictions or other criminal behavior,” the company added in last year’s statement. “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.”

Charter’s assertions were contested last year by the Thomas family’s attorneys. They pointed, for instance, to trial testimony that they said showed that the company “ignored countless red flags” from Holden's hire until his murder of Thomas with a company-issued knife. 

“One of the key reasons the Thomas family brought this case was there was no way for Betty Thomas to know or prevent this type of violence,” Chris Hamilton, an owner and partner at Hamilton Wingo, said in an interview shortly after the punitive damages were awarded. “It was completely preventable by Charter, with ordinary care and by behaving like a reasonable company.” 

Assuming it is implemented, the settlement would fulfill many legal experts’ predictions that Charter would pay a dramatically smaller amount than the original damages. Randy Gordon, an attorney and an executive professor at Texas A&M University School of Law, noted that a $25 million cap enacted in 2003 by the Texas state legislature on the amount that a defendant must post to stay execution in a large judgment “somewhat shifts the balance of power in a blockbuster case.” Charter said that it had posted a $25 million bond to stay the judgment in the Thomas case, pending appeals.

“In any event, it looks like the plaintiffs were aware of the Constitutional (issues) and other problems associated with a punitive award that so vastly exceeded the actual damages, which were themselves huge,” Gordon said in an email Tuesday. “Hence, the plaintiffs voluntarily reduced the award to a 2:1 punitive-to-actual ratio.  And the case then settled for even less.”; twitter: @paulschott