Infowars host Alex Jones and his company were ordered by a judge Thursday to pay an extra $473 million US for promoting false conspiracy theories about the Sandy Hook school massacre, bringing the total judgment against him in a lawsuit filed by the victims’ families to a staggering $1.44 billion US.
Connecticut Judge Barbara Bellis imposed the punitive damages on Jones and Free Speech Systems. Jones repeatedly told his millions of followers the massacre that killed 20 first graders and six educators was staged by “crisis actors” to enact more gun control.
“The record clearly supports the plaintiffs’ argument that the defendants’ conduct was intentional and malicious, and certain to cause harm by virtue of their infrastructure, ability to spread content, and massive audience including the infowarriors,” the judge wrote in a 45-page ruling.
Eight victims’ relatives and the FBI agent testified during a month-long trial about being threatened and harassed for years by people who deny the shooting happened. Strangers showed up at some of their homes and confronted some of them in public. People hurled abusive comments at them on social media and in emails. Some received death and rape threats.
Six jurors ordered Jones to pay $965 million US to compensate the 15 plaintiffs for defamation, infliction of emotional distress and violations of Connecticut’s Unfair Trade Practices Act, which bans deceptive business practices and unfair competition.
Jones has bashed the trial as unfair and an assault on free speech rights. He says he will appeal the verdicts. He also says he doesn’t have the money to pay such huge verdicts, because he has less than $2 million US to his name — which contradicted testimony at a similar trial in Texas.
Free Speech Systems, meanwhile, is seeking bankruptcy protection.
Bellis found Jones and the parent company of Infowars liable for damages without a trial last year, as a consequence for what she called his repeated failures to turn over many financial documents and other records to the plaintiffs. After the unusual “default” ruling, the jury was tasked only with deciding on the amount of compensatory damages and whether punitive damages were warranted.
Jones says he turned over thousands of documents and the default ruling deprived him of his right to present a defence against the lawsuit.
Christopher Mattei, a lawyer for the Sandy Hook families, said he hoped the punitive damages awarded Thursday send a message to conspiracy theorists who profit from lies.
“The Court recognized the ‘intentional, malicious … and heinous’ conduct of Mr. Jones and his business entities,” Mattei said in a statement.
On his show Thursday, Jones called the award “ridiculous” and a “joke” and said he has little money to pay the damages.
“Well, of course I’m laughing at it,” he said. “It’d be like if you sent me a bill for a billion dollars in the mail. Oh man, we got you. It’s all for psychological effect. It’s all the Wizard of Oz … when they know full well the bankruptcy going on and all the rest of it, that it’ll show what I’ve got and that’s it, and I have almost nothing.”
No cap on punitive damages
In Connecticut, punitive damages for defamation and infliction of emotional distress are generally limited to plaintiffs’ legal fees. The Sandy Hook plaintiffs’ lawyers are to get one-third of the $965 million US in compensatory damages under a retainer agreement — putting their legal fees at $322 million US.
But there is no cap on punitive damages for violations of the Unfair Trade Practices Act. The plaintiffs had not asked for a specific amount of punitive damages, but under one hypothetical calculation, they said such damages could be around $2.75 trillion US under the unfair trade law.
In a similar trial in Texas in August, Jones was ordered to pay nearly $50 million US to the parents of another child killed in the Sandy Hook shooting for calling the massacre a hoax. A forensic economist testified during that trial that Jones and Free Speech Systems have a combined net worth as high as $270 million US.
A third and final trial over Jones’ hoax claims is expected to begin around the end of the year in Texas. As in Connecticut, Jones was found liable for damages without trials in both Texas cases because he failed to turn over many records to the plaintiffs.