The nearly $1 billion a Connecticut jury ordered Alex Jones to pay to the families of Sandy Hook victims for calling the mass shooting a hoax is a “historically high” penalty and one the Infowars host and conspiracy theorist will be unlikely to evade, civil litigators said.
“He may be forced to live a subsistence type of life,” said Richard Signorelli, a New York attorney and former federal prosecutor. “He’s always going to be watched. He’s always going to be hounded, and he’s not going to, I believe, be able to ultimately escape the ramifications of his wrongful act.”
The families of eight victims of the 2012 school shooting and an FBI agent who responded to the scene sued Jones for defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress and violations of the state Unfair Trade Practices Act, for telling his followers that the massacre was “fake” and the families were “crisis actors” on multiple platforms for years.
In a trial solely to determine damages, because Jones was already found liable by a judge after refusing to hand over critical evidence in discovery, a six-member jury handed down 15 individual awards that ranged from $28.8 million to $120 million, totaling $965 million in compensatory damages.
Civil litigators across the country said they were astonished by the staggering sum.
“I think it’s the largest defamation verdict in U.S. history, certainly on compensatory damages,” said Jesse Gessin, a civil litigator and adjunct professor at the University of California, Irvine School of Law. “I was absolutely absolutely shocked. It’s just an unbelievable verdict.”
“And that’s not even all, there is still the matter of punitive damages which will also likely be in the millions,” he said.
Signorelli said jury awards can often add up to billions of dollars in mass tort cases or large class action suits but, for an individual, this is a “historically high damage award.”
After 20 children and six educators were killed by a gunman who opened fire at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown on Dec. 14, 2012, Jones went on a campaign to mischaracterize the shooting. His false claims attracted a massive viewership, leading him to rake in millions of dollars in product sales, according to testimony given at trial.
Jones and his companies today are worth $135 million to $270 million, forensic economist Bernard Pettingill testified in August at another defamation trial for Jones in Texas. That figure was disputed by his defense team.
An attorney for Jones did not return a request for comment by NBC News.
The amount eventually paid out by Jones may be less, according to Ryan O’Neill, a defamation lawyer and professor at Quinnipiac University School of Law.
With the conclusion of the trial, he said, there is still the matter of post-trial motions where “there are opportunities for parties to argue that the damages are excessive, and a court can remit some amount of that verdict to put it in line with what it determines to be reasonable damages.”
“My feeling would be that it will be reduced by some amount, but that it will still be very high, ‘’ he said. “I don’t see any scenario where we’re not talking about hundreds of millions of dollars still.”
The amount could also be disputed on appeal, which Jones’ attorney has already said he would pursue, or swept into bankruptcy proceedings for Jones’ company, Free Speech Systems.
The media company filed for bankruptcy in July, days before his Texas trial was scheduled.
Jones, who livestreamed Wednesday’s verdict on his show, mocked at the amount and scoffed at the idea of making any payments, saying he could not afford it.
“Ain’t going to be happening. Ain’t no money,” he said later on his show.
Jones has not filed for personal bankruptcy. He urged his audience to donate money to his company and buy products from its store to “fight this fraud” and “save Infowars.”
Although Jones’ company has filed for bankruptcy, it’s not a given that those proceedings would affect the final award, legal experts said.
“When you are found to have committed an intentional wrongful act, any award based on that intentional wrongful act is typically not dischargeable in a bankruptcy filing,” Signorelli said.
If it is found to be dischargeable, Jones would be required to make disclosures about his finances, Gessin said.
If he evaded or attempted to hide financial dealings in bankruptcy, that could land him in criminal court facing jail time for bankruptcy fraud, he said.
“I don’t think he’s going to be able to escape this judgment,” he said.
But Jones does have time, O’Neill noted. Collections will likely not happen until post-trial motions and all proceedings are resolved in the case, including hearings on punitive damages and attorney’s fees, which would take at least six months.
Even though there may be a long road ahead for the Sandy Hook families to see any payout, this could be financial ruin for Jones, Signorelli said.
“The significant thing about this whole case is that Alex Jones’ actions have been found to be so egregious that he won’t receive any leniency or mercy from the court or from the plaintiffs’ attorneys in seeking to enforce this judgment,” he said.