(Bloomberg Law) -- A Texas jury on Friday ordered Alex Jones to pay $45.2 million in punitive damages to the parents of a Sandy Hook victim, a day after he was ordered to pay $4.1 million in actual damages for claiming that the school shooting was a hoax.
The combined award —which is likely to be reduced—is well below the $150 million that parents Neil Heslin and Scarlett Lewis sought for the InfoWars host’s assertions that the 2012 massacre in Newtown, Conn., was fabricated. Their six-year-old, Jesse Lewis, was killed in the shooting.
“Punitive damages are typically more of a bellwether or a barometer of where we are culturally; they are more iconic messages sending verdicts from the public to the defendant directly,” Jamie Abrams, law professor at American University, told Bloomberg Law. “And so, on that front, this trial is uniquely interesting, because it really is a political barometer of how much misinformation the public is willing to accept.”
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Friday’s unanimous ruling closes the two-week trial in Travis County, Texas.
Friday’s damages are punishment for Jones’ statements, while Thursday’s damages were meant to compensate the parents for economic and noneconomic damages like emotional distress.
“I am asking you to take the bullhorn away from Alex Jones and all others who believe they can profit off fear and misinformation,” plaintiffs’ lawyer Wesley Ball said during closing arguments Friday.
“I suggest to you to return a verdict that is proportionate,” Jones’ attorney Andino Reynal countered during his own closing, asking jurors to order just $270,000 in punitive damages. “You’ve already sent a message. A message for the first time to a talk show host, to all talk show hosts, that their standard of care has to change.”
In Texas, there are statutory limits on punitive damages, with a per-defendant cap of two times the amount of economic damages, plus the amount of noneconomic damages found by the jury—the latter part not to exceed $750,000.
Judge Maya Guerra Gamble of the 459th District Court in Travis County may reduce the punitive damages given those caps, and Jones’ attorneys said immediately after the verdict that they would file a motion to reduce the punitive award.
The Texas law “protects companies and bad actors like Alex Jones, so that they’re never going to be punished to the full extent that would be needed to truly deter them from future actions and to teach other people that this is bad behavior,” said Carrie Goldberg of the C.A. Goldberg Law Firm in New York. “Texas is unusual.”
The very purpose of punitive damages gets frustrated when there’s a cap, she said.
“We do not believe punitive damage caps are constitutional as applied to our case and will certainly litigate that issue if necessary,” Mark Bankston, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, told Bloomberg Law.
Jones and InfoWars’ parent company, Free Speech Systems LLC, were co-defendants in the case.
The trial was shocking at times, including when Bankston told Jones earlier in the week that his defense team had accidentally sent the plaintiffs’ lawyers a record of previously requested text messages. Bankston also said that the US House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection at the US Capitol had requested the texts, and Gamble hinted Friday that she wouldn’t stand in the way of that.
Immediately after the Friday ruling, Bankston said he would seek sanctions against Jones’ attorneys for their handling of evidence and their conduct at trial.
Reynal said he’d tell the court which communications he would seek to reseal, and Gamble said she would set a hearing on those motions.
Jones conceded under oath earlier this week that the massacre was “100% real.” He also admitted that it was irresponsible of him to declare the shooting a hoax.
The defamation case vindicates Jesse’s memory, Ball said during closing arguments on Friday.
The court already determined in a 2021 default judgment that Jones was liable for defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Farrar & Ball LLP represented the parents. Reynal Law Firm PC represented Jones.
The case is Helsin v. Jones, Tex. Dist. Ct., No. D-1-GN-18-001835, 8/5/22.
—With assistance from Kaustuv Basu and James Nani.
To contact the reporter on this story: Janet Miranda in Houston at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Rob Tricchinelli at email@example.com; Nicholas Datlowe at firstname.lastname@example.org
(Updates throughout with commentary on punitive damages.)
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