By Cecilia Lenzen, The Texas Tribune
“Jury awards parents of Sandy Hook victim more than $45 million in punitive damages in Alex Jones defamation case” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.
For the latest breaking stories, sign up for our breaking news email alerts.
A Texas jury on Friday added $45.2 million to the damages that conspiracy theorist and media personality Alex Jones must pay to the parents of a Sandy Hook shooting victim as punishment for repeatedly claiming the school shooting was a hoax.
Neil Heslin and Scarlett Lewis, the parents of 6-year-old victim Jesse Lewis, sought $150 million from Jones after he told listeners of his Austin-based website and broadcast Infowars that the government staged the Sandy Hook shooting in order to take away Americans’ guns. The tragedy was the nation’s second-deadliest school shooting, in which 20 children ages 6 and 7 and six adults were killed.
On Thursday, the jury ordered Jones to pay the parents $4.1 million in compensation for his comments, bringing the total amount owed to just under $50 million. Friday’s order determined punitive damages, which can be awarded to punish a defendant for reckless, negligent or outrageous behavior or to deter future bad acts.
The Friday verdict delivers less than what the parents were hoping to gain in addition to the compensatory damages. One of their attorneys, Wesley Ball, urged the jury on Friday to award $145.9 million in punitive damages to reach the full $150 million that the parents asked for. He said the jury had a chance to not only take away Jones’ platform but also ensure that he can not rebuild it.
“I am asking you to take the bullhorn away from Alex Jones and all of the others who believe they can profit off of fear and misinformation,” Ball said to the jury. “The gold rush of fear and misinformation must end, and it must end today.”
But Jones’ lawyers said in court that they planned to appeal the amount, saying that Texas law limits the damages.
Jones has spread misinformation about national tragedies, COVID-19 and elections for years to a broad national audience. But lately, financial pressures, partly caused by lawsuits from Sandy Hook parents, have tested his media empire. His companies have filed for bankruptcy multiple times in recent months, including most recently during the defamation trial. He faces two more trials scheduled for this year over his Sandy Hook disinformation — one in Texas and one in Connecticut.
Bernard Pettingill, an economic expert, testified Friday that Jones was paid $18 million from 2015-18 by his main company, Free Speech Systems. He said Jones was paid $61.9 million in 2021, when he was found liable for defamation in two Sandy Hook cases.
Pettingill estimated that Jones’ net worth, combined with the net worth of Free Speech Systems, ranges from $135 million to $270 million. Jones himself did not testify about his net worth during the punitive damages phase of the trial.
Jones’ comments about the Sandy Hook shooting led his listeners to harass and make death threats against Heslin and Lewis, as well as the parents of other victims, for years. Heslin and Lewis said during their testimonies that they could not heal from the loss and trauma they experienced while living in fear.
During his closing argument Friday, Jones’ attorney Andino Reynal argued that Heslin and Lewis had already been awarded a lot of money in compensatory damages. He said the $4.1 million award amounts to $14,000 per hour of Sandy Hook coverage that Infowars aired.
“You’ve already sent a message,” Reynal said to the jury. “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 suggested that the jury order $270,000 in punitive damages.
When you join us at The Texas Tribune Festival Sept. 22-24 in downtown Austin, you’ll hear from changemakers who are driving innovation, lawmakers who are taking charge with new policies, industry leaders who are pushing Texas forward and so many others. See the growing speaker list and buy tickets.
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/08/05/alex-jones-sandy-hook-punitive/.
The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.