Weeks after he was ordered to pay millions in damages to the parents of a Sandy Hook victim for spreading lies that the 2012 mass shooting was a hoax, Infowars host Alex Jones is again facing a jury, the latest in a long series of legal troubles still to come for the shock jock.
Jones is currently on trial in Waterbury, Connecticut, about 20 miles from Newtown, where the shooting took place. A jury is being asked to decide how much he should pay in damages to the families of eight Sandy Hook shooting victims and an FBI agent who responded to the attack, all of whom say his lies about the shooting caused them suffering. A judge has already issued a default judgment of liability against Jones because he did not comply with the court’s order to turn over records ahead of trial.
This trial is the second of three on the same issue — the first was decided last month and the other is yet to come.
For years, Jones peddled false stories on his radio and online show that one of the deadliest school shootings ever committed was “synthetic” and a “false flag,” and that the families of the victims were “crisis actors.”
Twenty children and six educators were killed after a gunman entered their school and opened fire in Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown on Dec. 14, 2012.
Jones has been found liable in defamation lawsuits in Texas and Connecticut brought by the families of the victims, who said that his conspiracy theories led to emotional distress and harassment by people who believed his lies.
A Texas district court judge issued default judgments against Jones for defamation and emotional distress in two cases, one filed by Scarlett Lewis and Neil Heslin, whose 6-year-old son, Jesse, was killed in the attack, and another filed by Leonard Pozner and Veronique De La Rosa, whose son Noah was killed.
The judgment came after Jones repeatedly refused to comply with discovery requests and delayed the court process.
After a civil trial related to damages last month, a Texas jury ordered Jones to pay nearly $50 million in damages to Lewis and Heslin. Lewis and Heslin’s attorney argued that only such a large sum would be enough to “take the bullhorn away” from Jones.
An attorney for the families in the Connecticut trial told jurors in his opening argument on Tuesday that Jones’ business model profited off of spreading “fear and anxiety and paranoia in his audience” and that the families and agent were “defenseless” against his large platform of lies.
How are the two trials different?
In many ways, the trials are substantially similar, said Kevin Goldberg, an attorney and First Amendment specialist with the nonprofit free-speech advocacy group Freedom Forum.
There’s already a ruling on the merits of both cases — default judgments of liability — with jurors needing only to decide the issue of damages, he said.
“There are compensatory damages, which are amounts that will be paid for actual harms that could be shown by the families, and then punitive damages, which of course derived from the Latin word to punish, which are really more directed at Jones.”
It’s the issue of punitive damages under each state’s law that will be the key difference, he said.
“Connecticut really has one of the most stringent caps on punitive damages in defamation cases, even more than Texas, so that’s going to be limited to the attorneys fees the plaintiffs paid and also the expenses of litigation, and that’s really going to go nowhere near the $45 million in Texas for two plaintiffs.”
“It’s more of a sanction than a punishment,” Goldberg said.
Under Texas law, punitive damages can be up to twice the amount of economic compensatory damages but limited to $750,000 per plaintiff. Heslin and Lewis were awarded almost 10 times more by a jury, which will likely be up for appeal.
Ryan O’Neill, a defamation lawyer and professor at Quinnipiac University School of Law, said the Connecticut case also has another wrinkle that may apply.
“Typically, in Connecticut, a jury decides whether the plaintiffs are entitled to punitive damages, but the court decides the amount of punitive damages at a separate hearing” he said.
While O’Neill said he’s not sure if this will work the same way in Jones’ case, that is the normal procedure for defamation cases in the state.
However, the Connecticut case does have another key difference that could bring much larger relief, he said. In this case, the families and agent also brought a claim under the Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices Act, which does not have any cap for punitive damages, he said.
He added that the court has “discretion to decide on a separate award of punitive damages to serve the purpose of deterrence when it comes to the Unfair Trade Practices claim.”
What is next for Jones’ legal troubles?
Jones’ legal woes are far from over as he faces multiple proceedings related to these and other court filings.
Still on the docket is a third defamation trial, again in Texas, for damages filed against him by Pozner and De La Rosa. A jury will once more decide the issue of how much he owes the family in damages.
There are also still unresolved issues relating to Jones’ first trial. A Texas judge is still yet to decide whether to apply state caps for punitive damages to the amount awarded to Heslin and Lewis. If applied, an appeal may be forthcoming.
Heslin and Lewis were awarded $4.1 million in compensatory damages, which had not been specified as economic damages under Texas law, and $45.2 million in punitive damages, which is far above the state’s cap.
Lawyers for the parents have said they will fight for the full amount on appeal and Jones’ lawyers say they will appeal to lower the amount.
Midway through that trial, Jones also filed for bankruptcy on behalf of his company, Free Speech Systems. In court filings, families of the victims of the Sandy Hook said Jones “systematically transferred millions of dollars” to himself and his relatives while claiming bankruptcy to avoid compensating the families in the several lawsuits he faces.
Prior to his Connecticut trial, Jones’ lawyer tried to transfer the case to a federal bankruptcy court, which the court denied, allowing it to proceed in state court.
“The Connecticut court will ultimately decide the overall award, and whether and to what extent that can be collected will be a common issue or for the bankruptcy court, ‘’ O’Neill said.
Proceedings related to the bankruptcy are also pending for Jones.
“There’s still a long road for him,” he said. “He’s got a lot of litigation and judgments that he’s going to have to be dealing with.”