US jury orders Alex Jones to pay $45.2M more over school shooting ‘fake news’
A Texas jury on Friday ordered conspiracy theorist Alex Jones to pay $45.2 million in punitive damages to the parents of a child killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, in addition to the $4.1 million he must pay. for the suffering he inflicted on them for years claiming that the deadliest school shooting in the country was a hoax.
The total — $49.3 million — is less than the $150 million sought by Neil Heslin and Scarlett Lewis, whose 6-year-old son Jesse Lewis was one of 20 children and six educators killed in the deadliest shooting in the U.S. history. But the trial marks the first time Jones has been held financially liable for spreading lies about the 2012 attack in Newtown, Connecticut.
After the verdict, Lewis said Jones was held responsible. She said that when she performed and looked Jones in the eye, she thought of her son who was credited with saving lives by yelling “run” as the killer paused in his rage.
“He stood up to the bully Adam Lanza and saved the lives of nine classmates,” Lewis said. “I hope I did justice to that incredible courage when I was able to confront Alex Jones, who is also a bully. I hope that inspires other people to do the same.”
Earlier this week, Jones testified that any prize over $2 million would “sink us.” His company Free Speech Systems, Infowars’ parent company, filed for bankruptcy protection in the first week of the lawsuit.
Punitive damages are designed to punish suspects for particularly blatant conduct, in addition to monetary compensation awarded to those who have hurt them. A high punitive award is also seen as an opportunity for jurors to deliver a broader societal message and as a way to deter others from the same abhorrent behavior in the future.
Barry Covert, a First Amendment attorney from Buffalo, New York with no connection to the Jones case, said Friday’s high punitive award, added to Thursday’s compensatory award, is “a staggering loss for Jones.”
“With a total of $50 million, the jury sent a huge, loud message that this behavior will not be tolerated,” Covert said. “Anyone with a show like this that knowingly lies – juries won’t tolerate it.”
Future jurors in other pending Sandy Hook trials could view the damages amounts as a benchmark in this case, Covert said. And if other juries do, Covert said, “it could very well bankrupt Jones.”
Family lawyers had urged jurors to impose a financial penalty that would force Inforwars to shut down.
“You have the ability to prevent this man from ever doing it again,” Wesley Ball, a parental attorney, told the jury on Friday. “Send the message to those who want to do the same: Speech is free. Lies, that’s what you pay for.”
An economist testified Friday that Jones and the company are worth up to $270 million, suggesting Jones was still making money.
Bernard Pettingill, who was hired by the plaintiffs to study Jones’ net worth, said records show Jones took $62 million for himself in 2021, when default judgments were issued in lawsuits against him.
“That number represents an asset value in my opinion,” Pettingill said. “He’s got money in a bank account somewhere.”
The money that flows into Jones’ businesses eventually ends up with him, said Pettingill, who added that he testified on about 1,500 cases during his career.
But Jones’ lawyers said their client had already learned his lesson and asked for leniency, saying the penalty should be less than $300,000.
“You’ve already sent a message. A first message to a talk show host, to all talk show hosts, that their standard of care needs to change,” said Andino Reynal, Jones’ attorney.
Jones — who was briefly in court on Friday but was not present for the verdict — is still facing two other defamation lawsuits from Sandy Hook families in Texas and Connecticut that endanger his personal wealth and media empire.
Attorneys for the Sandy Hook families who are suing Jones allege that he tried to hide evidence of his true wealth in several shell companies.
During his testimony, Jones was confronted with a memo from one of his business executives outlining the $800,000 gross income for one day from selling vitamin supplements and other products through his website, which would amount to nearly $300 million a year. Jones called it a record sales day.
Jones, who portrayed the lawsuit as an attack on his First Amendment rights, admitted at trial that the attack was “100% real” and that he had falsely lied about it. But Heslin and Lewis told the jurors that an apology would not be enough and called on them to make Jones pay for the years of suffering he inflicted on them and other Sandy Hook families.
The parents told jurors how they endured a decade of trauma, caused first by their son’s murder and what followed: gunshots in a house, online and telephone threats, and intimidation on the street by strangers. They said the threats and intimidation were all fueled by Jones and that his conspiracy theory spread to his followers through Infowars.
A forensic psychiatrist testified that the parents suffer from “complex post-traumatic stress disorder” caused by ongoing trauma, similar to what a soldier at war or a victim of child abuse can experience.
Throughout the trial, Jones was his typically bombastic self, talking about conspiracies on the witness stand, at impromptu press conferences, and on his show. His erratic behavior is unusual for courtroom standards, and the judge called him names and at one point told him, “This is not your show.”
The trial has also attracted attention outside of Austin.
Bankston told the court on Thursday that the U.S. House Committee investigating the January 6, 2021 U.S. Capitol uprising requested data from Jones’ phone that Jones’ lawyers had mistakenly turned over to plaintiffs. Bankston later said he intended to comply with the commission’s request.
Last month, the January 6 committee displayed graphic and violent text messages and played videos of right-wing figures, including Jones, and others who swore January 6 would be the day they would fight for Trump.
The commission first subpoenaed Jones in November, demanding a statement and documents regarding his efforts to spread misinformation about the 2020 election and a rally on the day of the attack.