AUSTIN, Texas – A Texas court ordered conspiracy theorist Alex Jones on Friday to pay the parents of a child killed in the 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting $45.2 million in punitive damages for spreading falsehoods that they helped orchestrate the massacre .
The court announced its decision a day after awarding the parents more than $4 million in damages and after testimony on Friday that Mr. Jones and Free Speech Systems, the parent company of the Infowars media outlet, were worth $135 million . 270 million dollars.
Mr. Jones was found guilty last year of 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 were complicit in the scheme.
Damages are based on proven damage, loss or injury and are often calculated based on the fair market value of the damaged property, lost wages and expenses, according to Cornell Law School. Punitive damages are intended to punish particularly harmful conduct and tend to be awarded at the court’s discretion, and are sometimes multiples of a damages award.
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, Conn. It was the first to emerge 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, the family’s attorney, told the jury she had “the ability to send a message to everyone in this country and maybe this world to listen.”
“We’re asking you to send a very, very simple message, and that is: Stop Alex Jones,” he said. “Stop monetizing misinformation and lies. Please.”
Mr. Ball had asked the court for about $146 million in damages, on top of the $4 million in damages awarded on Thursday.
How much Mr. Jones will actually have to pay in punitive damages is sure to be the subject of further litigation. Texas law limits punitive damages to twice compensatory damages plus $750,000.
But Mark Bankston, a lawyer for Mr. Heslin and Ms. Lewis, told reporters Thursday that the issue was likely to end up in the Texas Supreme Court, and legal experts said there were disagreements about the constitutionality of the cap.
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A united front. Far-right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones is at the center of a long-running legal battle being waged by families of victims of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn.. Here’s what you need to know:
Mr. Jones’s lawyer, F. Antino Reynal, said the punitive award would eventually be reduced to $1.5 million.
Mr. Jones believes that ”the First Amendment is under siege and he looks forward to continuing the fight,” Mr. Reynal said after the verdict.
Following the jury’s award, Judge Maya Guerra Gamble also cleared 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 sent them, apparently by mistake, a huge cache of data from Jones’ mobile phone and 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 committee on January 6.
The committee subpoenaed Mr. Jones in its investigation into his role in planning the Jan. 6, 2021, pro-Trump rally in Washington that preceded the attack on Capitol Hill.
In the Sandy Hook defamation cases, a trial for damages in another of the lawsuits is scheduled to begin next month in Connecticut, but could be delayed because of last week’s bankruptcy filing by Free Speech Systems. Lawyers for the families criticized the move as another attempt by Mr Jones to shield his wealth and avoid the crisis.
The Texas case allowed plaintiffs to testify about Mr. Jones’ wealth and the operations of his companies, which in addition to carrying his shows make money by selling merchandise.
Bernard Pettingill Jr., a forensic economist and former professor of economics at the Florida Institute of Technology, testified for Mr. Heslin and Ms. Lewis on Friday that Mr. Jones “is a very successful man.”
Infowars averaged $53.2 million in annual revenue between September 2015 and December 2018, Mr. Pettingill said. Since then, there has been a “nice healthy increase” in the company’s revenue, including sales of merchandise and survival supplements, and it brought in 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 that in the form of a note to PQPR Holdingsan entity naming Mr. Jones as a trustee.
Last year, after Mr. Jones was found guilty by default in the Sandy Hook cases, he began funneling $11,000 a day to PQPR, Mr. Pettingill said.
The “giant” loan from PQPR, a shell company with no employees, is actually Mr. Jones “using this note as a clawback to pay himself back,” Mr. Pettingill said, although Mr. Jones’s lawyer insisted that PQPR is a real company. Another note is due to mature when Mr. Jones is 74 (he is now 48).
Mr. Pettingill said he had been able to track down nine private companies linked to Jones, but had to gather information in part because Mr. Jones’ team resisted discovery orders.
“We can’t really put a finger on what he does for a living, how he actually makes his money,” she said.
“His org chart is an inverted T, which means everything flows to Alex Jones. Alex Jones made all the important decisions and I think Alex Jones knows where the money is,” Mr Pettingill said. “He can say he’s broke, he’s got no money, but we know that’s not right.”
Mr Raynal, Mr Jones’s 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 for.’
Mr. Jones and partners such as the Genesis Communications Network, which has helped syndicate his show for decades, have claimed to be in the financial network, using the defamation cases as an opportunity to beg fans for donations.
Mr Jones complained that his income dropped after he was banned from the major social media platforms in 2018. Mr Bankston pushed back in court on Wednesday: “Well, after you’ve been de-platformed, your numbers keep getting better,” he said. .
After the verdict on Friday, Ms Lewis stressed the importance of being given the opportunity during the trial to face Mr Jones directly in the courtroom earlier in the week.
“I have to look him in the eye and tell him the impact his actions have had on me and my family and not just us — all the other Sandy Hook families, all the people who live in Sandy Hook and after the ripple effect that that he had all over the world,” he said. “That was a cathartic moment for me.”
It was also significant, he said, that Mr Jones saw a video, played in court, of Jesse alive running through a field. “I think he’s been punished,” she said of Mr. Jones. “I think he’s held accountable and I hope he takes this to heart because ultimately love is a choice and what he puts out there — lies, hate — is also a choice.”
Elizabeth Williamson reported from austin, Tiffany Hsu from San Francisco and Michael Levenson from New York.