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 $45.2 million in damages for spreading the lie that they helped stage the massacre.
The jury announced its decision a day after the award of the parents more than $4 million in damages and after testimony on Friday that Mr. Jones and Free Speech Systems, the parent company of his disinformation-peddling outlet, Infowars, were worth $135 million to $270 million.
Mr. Jones was found responsible last year for defaming the victims’ families while spreading false theories that the shooting had been 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 injury, loss or damage, and are often calculated based on the fair market value of 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 many multiples of a compensation premium.
The suit, settled 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 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 considering damages, Wesley Todd Ball, a lawyer for the family, told the jury it had “the ability to send a message that everybody in this country and maybe this world could hear.”
“We’re asking you to send a very, very simple message and that 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 Thursday.
How much Mr. Jones will actually have to pay in damages is sure to be the subject of further litigation. Texas law limits punitive damages to twice the compensatory damages plus $750,000.
But Mark Bankston, a lawyer for Mr. Heslin and Ms. Lewis, told reporters Thursday that the issue is likely to end up before the Texas Supreme Court, and legal experts said there was disagreement about the constitutionality of the cap.
Understand the cases against Alex Jones
A united front. Alex Jones, a far-right conspiracy theorist, is in the spotlight a protracted legal battle by families of victims of a mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in 2012. Here’s what you need to know:
Mr. Jones’ attorney, F. Andino Reynal, said the penalty 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 after the verdict.
After the jury award, Judge Maya Guerra Gamble also cleared the way for another move that could prove problematic for Mr. Jones.
The family’s lawyers had revealed during the trial that Mr. Jones’ team had sent them, apparently inadvertently, a huge cache data from Mr. Jones’ cell phoneand on Friday Judge Gamble said she would not stand in the way of the lawyers for Mr. Heslin and Mrs. Lewis to deliver the messages to law enforcement and the House January 6 committee.
The committee has summoned Mr. Jones in his investigation into his role in helping plan the Jan. 6, 2021, pro-Trump rally in Washington that preceded the attack on the Capitol.
In the Sandy Hook defamation cases, a trial for damages in another of the cases is scheduled to begin next month in Connecticut, but it may be delayed because of a filing for bankruptcy last week by Free Speech Systems. Lawyers for the families criticized the move as one more try by Mr. Jones to protect his wealth and avoid conviction.
The Texas case allowed the plaintiffs to introduce testimony about Mr. Jones’s wealth and the operation of his businesses, which, in addition to carrying his broadcasts, make money by selling merchandise.
Bernard Pettingill Jr., a forensic economist and former economics professor at the Florida Institute of Technology, testified Friday as a witness for Mr. Heslin and Mrs. Lewis that Mr. Jones “is a very successful man.”
Infowars averaged $53.2 million in annual revenue between September 2015 and December 2018, Mr. Pettingill. Since then, there has been a “nice healthy increase” in the company’s turnover, including from sale of survival goods and food supplementsand it brought in nearly $65 million last year, he said.
At one point, Mr. Jones himself averages $6 million a year, Mr. Pettingill.
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 percent of that in the form of a note to PQPR Holdingsan entity naming Mr. Jones as manager.
Last year, after Mr. Jones was convicted by default in the Sandy Hook cases, he began sending $11,000 a day to PQPR, Mr. Pettingill.
The “giant” loan from PQPR, a shell company with no employees, is actually Mr. Jones “is using that note as a clawback to pay himself back,” Mr. Pettingill, although Mr. Jones’ lawyer insisted that PQPR is a real company. Another note is set to mature when Mr. Jones is 74 (he’s now 48).
Mr. Pettingill said he had been able to track down nine private Jones-associated companies but had to piece together information, in part because Mr. Jones’ team opposed 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 organizational chart is an inverted T, which means everything flows to Alex Jones. Alex Jones made all the big decisions and I think Alex Jones knows where the money is,” said Mr. Pettingill. “He can say he’s broke, he’s got no money, but we know that’s not correct.”
Mr. Reynal, Mr. Jones’ attorney, said in his closing statement Friday that “we got no evidence of what Alex Jones actually has today, we didn’t get any of what FSS has today, what money they have, what assets they have to pay. “
Mr. Jones and employees such as Genesis Communications Networkwho helped syndicate his show for decades, has claimed to be down on the financial thread, using the defamation cases as an opportunity to beg fans for donations.
Mr. Jones has complained that his income dropped after he was blocked from major social media platforms in 2018. Mr. Bankston backtracked in court Wednesday: “Well, after your deplatforming, your numbers keep getting better,” he said.
After the verdict on Friday, Ms Lewis stressed the importance of being given an opportunity during the trial to confront Mr. Jones directly in the courtroom earlier this week.
“I got to look him in the eye and I got to tell him the impact his actions 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 then the ripple effect it had around the world,” she said. “It was a relieving moment for me.”
It was also important, she said, that Mr. Jones watched a video that was presented in court of Jesse alive, running through a field. “I think he’s been punished,” she said of Mr. Jones. “I think he’s been held accountable, and I hope he really takes this to heart, because at the end of the day, love is a choice, and what he puts out — lies, hate — it’s also a choice.”
Elizabeth Williamson reported from Austin, Tiffany Hsu from San Francisco and Michael Levenson from New York.