Charter was recently ordered to pay over $1.1 billion to the estate of the family of an 83-year-old Charter customer that was murdered by a Spectrum technician in 2019. A jury had originally ordered Charter to pay $337 million in compensation plus $7 billion in punitive damages. The judge lowered the punitive damages to be more in line with comparable punitive damage calculations.
This was a case that should concern all ISPs. The technician, Roy Holden, was seemingly a good technician. He had completed over 1,000 service calls with no customer complaints. It turns out that the technician had stolen credit cards and checks from a few elderly customers, but this wasn’t discovered until after the murder. Charter had done a routine background check when he was hired that showed no arrests, convictions, or other criminal behavior. There was nothing about Roy Holden that made him look any different on paper than the many technicians hired by other ISPs.
It’s likely that the award was so large due to Charter being such a large and profitable company. But even the base award of $337 million would ruin all but the largest ISPs in the country.
This is obviously a pretty rare event and, as Charter argued in court, was totally unforeseeable. How can any ISP know when it has a rogue or unbalanced technician? Unless an employee is acting erratically, it’s impossible to think that an ISP, or the many other kinds of companies that do in-home customer service calls can protect against this kind of event.
ISPs have no financial backstop for this kind of large court award. Most of my clients carry general business insurance in the range of perhaps $5 million. That level of coverage won’t come close to covering the damages awarded in this case. I don’t know many ISPs that could survive a lower award – even $20 – $50 million would ruin most of my clients.
This kind of event is rare, and I can’t imagine that insurance can be purchased to protect against it. If there is such a policy, it would have to be extraordinarily expensive, and ISPs would have a hard time justifying the premiums due to the low risk of ever having such an event.
Facility-based ISPs generally don’t carry a large amount of insurance. It’s not feasible to insure expensive networks against things like storm damage. Instead, ISPs rely on big storm damage to be covered by FEMA along with other infrastructure that is damaged in big natural disasters like storms, fires, and floods.
I suspect this award will send some ISPs to talk to their insurance agent – and they will find that there is no practical way to insure against this kind of event. But that doesn’t make ISPs any different than companies that install appliances, countertops, or air conditioners. I think this is one of those things that ISPs shouldn’t think too hard about. I’ve read articles on the issue that suggest that ISPs need a more vigorous vetting process for new employees. But realistically, that probably makes almost no difference, although it might convince a jury to set a smaller award.