A Texas jury on Friday ordered conspiracy theorist Alex Jones to pay $45.2 million US in punitive damages to the parents of a child who was killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, adding to the $4.1 million he must pay for the suffering he put them through by claiming for years that the nation’s deadliest school shooting was a hoax.
The total — $49.3 million — is less than the $150 million sought by Neil Heslin and Scarlett Lewis, whose six-year-old son Jesse Lewis was among the 20 children and six educators killed in the 2012 attack in Newtown, Conn. But the trial marks the first time Jones has been held financially liable for peddling lies about the massacre.
Afterward, Lewis said that Jones — who wasn’t in the courtroom to hear the verdict — has been held accountable. She said when she took the stand and looked Jones in the eye, she thought of her son, who was credited with saving lives by yelling “run” when the killer paused in his rampage.
“He stood up to the bully Adam Lanza and saved nine of his classmates’ lives,” Lewis said.
“I hope that I did that incredible courage justice when I was able to confront Alex Jones, who is also a bully. I hope that inspires other people to do the same.”
It could be awhile before the plaintiffs collect anything. Jones’s lead attorney, Andino Reynal, told the judge he will appeal and ask the courts to drastically reduce the size of the verdict.
After the hearing, Reynal said he thinks the punitive amount will be reduced to as little as $1.5 million, noting Texas law caps punitive damages at $750,000 per plaintiff.
Reynal later told Reuters he aimed to minimize compensatory damages throughout the trial knowing there is a cap on punitive damages.
“We always knew that was going to be a backstop, so the strategy worked,” Reynal said, referring to the cap.
Jones’s companies and personal wealth could also get carved up by other lawsuits and bankruptcy. Another defamation lawsuit against Jones by a Sandy Hook family is set to start pretrial hearings in the same Austin court on Sept. 14. He faces yet another defamation lawsuit in Connecticut.
Plaintiffs’ attorney Mark Bankston said he believes he can challenge any attempt to reduce the damages. But he said even if the award is drastically cut, it’s just as important to take the big verdict into the bankruptcy court for the family to claim against Jones’s estate and company.
Debate over net worth
Jones testified this week that any award over $2 million would “sink us.” His company Free Speech Systems, which is Infowars’ parent company, filed for bankruptcy protection during the first week of the trial.
Punitive damages are meant to punish defendants for particularly egregious conduct, beyond monetary compensation awarded to the individuals they hurt. A high punitive award is also seen as a chance for jurors to send a wider societal message and a way to deter others from the same conduct in the future.
Attorneys for the family had urged jurors to hand down a financial punishment that would force Infowars to shut down.
“You have the ability to stop this man from ever doing it again,” Wesley Ball, an attorney for the parents, told the jury. “Send the message to those who desire to do the same: Speech is free. Lies, you pay for.”
An economist testified that Jones and the company are worth up to $270 million US.
Bernard Pettingill, who was hired by the plaintiffs to study Jones’s net worth, said records show that Jones withdrew $62 million for himself in 2021, when default judgments were issued in lawsuits against him.
“That number represents, in my opinion, a value of a net worth,” Pettingill said. “He’s got money put in a bank account somewhere.”
But Jones’s lawyers said their client has already learned his lesson, and asked for lenience. The jury’s punishment should be less than $300,000 US, attorney Andino Reynal said.
“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,” Reynal said.
During his testimony, Jones was confronted with a memo from one of his business managers outlining a single day’s gross revenue of $800,000 from selling vitamin supplements and other products through his website, which would approach nearly $300 million in a year. Jones called it a record sales day.
Parents threatened, harassed
Jones, who has portrayed the lawsuit as an attack on his First Amendment rights, conceded during the trial that the attack was “100 per cent real” and that he was wrong to have lied about it. But Heslin and Lewis told jurors that an apology wouldn’t suffice and called on them to make Jones pay for the years of suffering he has put them and other Sandy Hook families through.
The parents told jurors about how they’ve endured a decade of trauma, inflicted first by the murder of their son and what followed: gun shots fired at a home, online and phone threats, and harassment on the street by strangers. They said the threats and harassment were all fuelled by Jones and his conspiracy theory spread to his followers via his website Infowars.
A forensic psychiatrist testified that the parents suffer from “complex post-traumatic stress disorder” inflicted by ongoing trauma, similar to what might be experienced by a soldier at war or a child abuse victim.
Throughout the trial, Jones has been his typically bombastic self, talking about conspiracies on the witness stand, during impromptu news conferences and on his show. His erratic behaviour is unusual by courtroom standards, and the judge has scolded him, telling him at one point: “This is not your show.”