AUSTIN, Texas — A Texas jury on Friday ordered conspiracy theorist Alex Jones to pay the parents of a child killed at the Sandy Hook school in 2012 by drawing $45.2 million in punitive damages for spreading the lie that they helped organize the massacre.
The jury announced its decision a day after awarding the parents more than $4 million in damages and after testifying Friday that Mr. Jones and Free Speech Systems, the parent company of his disinformation outlet, Infowars, were worth between $135 million and $270 million.
Mr Jones was found responsible last year for defaming the victims’ families while spreading false theories that the shooting was part of a government plot to confiscate Americans’ firearms and that the victims’ families had been complicit in the scheme.
Compensatory damages are based on proven harm, loss or injury and are often calculated based on the fair market value of damaged property, lost wages and expenses, depending on Cornell Law School. Punitive damages are intended to punish particularly harmful behavior and are generally awarded at the discretion of the court, and are sometimes several multiples of a compensatory allowance.
The case decided this week was brought by Scarlett Lewis and Neil Heslin, whose 6-year-old son Jesse Lewis died in the attack in Newtown, Connecticut. It was the first to stem from several lawsuits filed by the victims’ parents in 2018.
“This is an important day for truth, for justice, and I couldn’t be happier,” Ms Lewis said in the courtroom after the verdict.
Before jurors began deliberating on punitive damages, Wesley Todd Ball, a lawyer for the family, told the jury that he had “the ability to send a message to everyone in this country and can – be this world to hear”.
“We’re asking you to send a very, very simple message, which is: stop Alex Jones,” he said. “Stop the monetization of misinformation and lies. Please.”
Mr. Ball had asked the jury for punitive damages of about $146 million, in addition to the $4 million in compensatory damages awarded on Thursday.
How much Mr Jones will actually have to pay in punitive damages will certainly be the subject of legal action. Texas law caps punitive damages at twice compensatory damages plus $750,000.
But Mark Bankston, a lawyer for Mr Heslin and Ms Lewis, told reporters on Thursday the matter would likely end up in the Texas Supreme Court, and legal experts said there were disagreements over the constitutionality of the ceiling.
Understanding the Cases Against Alex Jones
A united front. Alex Jones, a far-right conspiracy theorist, is at the center of a long legal battle by the families of victims of a mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut in 2012. Here’s what you need to know:
Mr. Jones’ attorney, F. Andino Reynal, said the punitive award would eventually be reduced to $1.5 million.
Mr Jones believes ‘the First Amendment is under siege and he is eager to continue the fight,’ Mr Reynal said after the verdict.
After the jury award, judge Maya Guerra Gamble also paved the way for another step that could prove problematic for Mr Jones.
Lawyers for the family had revealed during the trial that Mr Jones’ team had apparently inadvertently sent them a huge cache of Mr. Jones cell phone dataand on Friday, Judge Gamble said she would not stand in the way of lawyers for Mr. Heslin and Ms. Lewis provide the messages to law enforcement and the House January 6 Committee.
The committee subpoenaed Mr. Jones to appear in its investigation into his role in planning the pro-Trump rally in Washington on January 6, 2021, which preceded the attack on the Capitol.
In the Sandy Hook defamation cases, a trial for damages in another lawsuit is due to begin next month in Connecticut, but it could be delayed due to a bankruptcy filing last week by Free Speech Systems. The families’ lawyers criticized the decision because another attempt by Mr. Jones to protect his wealth and escape judgment.
The Texas case allowed plaintiffs to present testimony about Mr. Jones’ wealth and the operations of his businesses, which in addition to airing his shows make money selling merchandise.
Bernard Pettingill Jr., a forensic economist and former professor of economics at the Florida Institute of Technology, testified Friday as a witness for Mr. Heslin and Ms. Lewis that Mr. Jones “is a very successful man.”
Infowars averaged $53.2 million in annual revenue between September 2015 and December 2018, Pettingill said. Since then, there has been a “nice healthy increase” in the company’s revenue, thanks in particular to sales of survival products and supplementsand it made nearly $65 million last year, he said.
At one point, Mr. Jones was paying himself an average of $6 million a year, Mr. Pettingill said.
In its bankruptcy filing, Free Speech Systems reported $14.3 million in assets as of May 31, with $1.9 million in net income and nearly $11 million in product sales. Free Speech Systems also had nearly $79.2 million in debt, 68% of which was in the form of a note to PQPR Holdingsan entity that appoints Mr. Jones as manager.
Last year, after Mr Jones was found liable by default in the Sandy Hook cases, he began pumping $11,000 a day into the PQPR, Mr Pettingill said.
The ‘gigantic’ loan from PQPR, a shell company with no employees, is actually Mr Jones ‘using this note as a clawback to pay himself off’, Mr Pettingill said, although Mr Jones’ lawyer insisted that PQPR is a real business. . Another note will mature when Mr Jones turns 74 (he is now 48).
Mr Pettingill said he managed to track nine private companies associated with Jones, but had to piece together information in part because Mr Jones’ team resisted discovery orders.
“We can’t really put our finger on what he does for a living, how he actually makes his money,” he said.
“His organization chart is an inverted T, which means everything goes to Alex Jones. Alex Jones made all the big decisions, and I think Alex Jones knows where the money is,” Mr Pettingill said. “He can say he’s broke, he has no money, but we know that’s not right.”
Mr Reynal, Mr Jones’ lawyer, said in his closing statement on Friday that ‘we got no evidence of what Alex Jones actually has today, we got nothing of what FSS has today, what money they have, what assets they have to pay.
Mr. Jones and associates such as the Genesis communication networkwho helped syndicate his show for decades, claimed to be aware of the financial troubles, using the defamation cases as an opportunity to implore fans to donate.
Mr Jones complained that his income had plummeted after being rod of major social media platforms in 2018. Mr Bankston pushed back in court on Wednesday: “Well, after your platform, your numbers just keep getting better,” he said.
After Friday’s verdict, Ms Lewis stressed the importance of having had the opportunity during the trial confront Mr. Jones directly in the courtroom earlier in the week.
“I have to look him in the eye and I have to tell him the impact his actions have had on me and my family and not just us – all the other families in Sandy Hook, all the people who live in Sandy Hook, then the ripple effect that that has had around the world,” she said. “It was a cathartic moment for me.”
It was also significant, she said, that Mr Jones saw a video, shown in court, of Jesse alive, running through a field. “I think he was punished,” she said of Mr Jones. “I think he’s been held accountable, and I hope he really takes that to heart because at the end of the day, love is a choice, and what he says – lies, hate – it’s also a choice.”
Elizabeth Williamson reported from Austin, Tiffany Hsu of San Francisco and Michael Levenson from New York.