Employers’ liability for employee misconduct has always been an issue plagued by controversy. Generally, employers can be held responsible for worker’s actions while on duty. Also, employers can be held liable if they fail in their duty to prevent wrongdoing.
The recent Goff v. Holden & Charter Communications, LLC verdict that fined Charter Communications $7.375 billion in compensatory and punitive damages is unique in several ways, and it has several lessons employees could learn from. The verdict was unique because it penalized Charter for an employee’s actions while off duty.
Charter Communications and the family of Betty Thomas were involved in the case, which was concluded last summer. Roy Holden, a former Charter cable technician, murdered Betty Thomas.
In December of 2019, Holden went to Betty Thomas’ home for a service call, and the next day, he drove back to her house while off duty, robbed, and murdered her. Subsequently, he was arrested, at which point he pleaded guilty to the murder and is now serving a life sentence.
That was not the end of the case. Thomas’ family filed a lawsuit alleging that gross negligence caused her death. At first glance, Charter seemed to be in a good position to defend their corporation, and for good reasons.
After all, Holden committed the crimes while off duty, and before hiring him, Charter ran a background check. The company also maintained a workplace violence prevention program.
Charter’s First Mistake
However, as the case wore on, the plaintiff presented enough evidence to support the claim. It became apparent that the company could have taken several measures to shield it from liability, and most of all, prevented the tragedy.
First off, Charter failed to verify Holden’s prior employment history. Its policy relied on self-reported information rather than formal background checks.
Regardless of running formal background checks, the plaintiff provided sufficient evidence to prove that Holden’s position required employment verification, and a criminal background check.
Had Charter based its checks on these factors, it would have noted several red flags that would have potentially prevented the tragedy. For instance, they would have learned that Holden was fired from his previous job for several misconducts such as forgery, unethical conduct in the workplace, and disregarding superior instructions.
Charter’s Second Mistake
The second series of mistakes came after Charter had hired Holden. The plaintiff provided evidence that Charter had failed to act on a series of red flags in the days leading to the murder.
First, nine days before the murder, Holden begged his supervisor for money, a request that was declined, but the supervisor did not report it. Also, Holden broke down at work eight days before the incident after his wife left him. Finally, he misused a company van in the days leading to the murder.
According to the plaintiff, Charter should have used these red flags to identify Holden as a potential threat, and revoked his access to company resources. This way, the murder could have been prevented.
Lessons From The Case
“There are a lot of lessons companies could learn from Charter’s mistakes. For instance, robust background checks that match or even exceed industry standards are absolutely necessary,” says attorney Zahra Umansky.
Furthermore, the human resource and the security departments should work in tandem to ensure efficient, timely, and relevant background checks. Such companies should rely on reputable background check vendors that suit their niche.
Finally, employees should always report potential warning signs to the HR department, which Charter employees failed to do. In fact, the managers had not trained the employees to identify these signs, and had not received this training themselves.
Companies should establish employer programs designed to handle such investigations sensitively such that when such red flags are reported, they are investigated, the risk evaluated, and appropriate mitigation measures are implemented.