HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — Infowars host Alex Jones faces the possibility of having more steep penalties heaped onto the vast amount he already owes for spreading conspiracy theories about the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, as the punitive damages phase began Friday in a lawsuit filed by the victims’ families.
A Connecticut jury last month ordered Jones and his company, Free Speech Systems, to pay $965 million to the Sandy Hook families for harm they suffered after he persuaded his audience that the 2012 shooting that killed 26 people was a hoax perpetrated by “crisis actors.”
The jury also said punitive damages should be awarded. That amount, to be determined by Judge Barbara Bellis following the court hearing Friday and another one Monday, would be added to the compensatory damages already ordered.
Friday’s hearing, which was only about the plaintiffs’ legal fees and was held via a video conference, suggested a big additional penalty was possible for Jones.
Both sides reached agreement earlier this week that the families’ contract with their attorneys calls for them to receive one-third of the amount of the compensatory damages — nearly $322 million. If the judge approves punitive damages in the amount of the legal fees, that would increase what Jones and his company would have to pay the families to $1.29 billion.
The plaintiffs’ lawyers, in court filings, suggested punitive damages under the act could total $2.75 trillion based on one hypothetical calculation, but they have not asked for a specific amount.
“Justice requires that the Court’s punitive damages award, punish and deter this evil conduct,” attorneys Alinor Sterling, Christopher Mattei and Joshua Koskoff wrote in a motion. “Only a punitive damages assessment of historic size will serve those purposes.”
Jones’ lawyer, Norm Pattis, has asked the judge not to award any punitive damages under the Unfair Trade Practices Act.
“Few defendants alive could pay damages of this sum,” Pattis wrote in a brief. “Indeed, most defendants would be driven into bankruptcy, their livelihood destroyed, and their future transformed into the bleak prospect of a judgment debtor saddled for decades with a debt that cannot be satisfied. To regard this as anything other than punishment would be unjust.”
Jones was found liable last year for damages to eight victims’ relatives, and an FBI agent who responded to the school, for defamation, infliction of emotional distress and violating Connecticut’s Unfair Trade Practices Act.
On Monday, the judge will hear debate about damages under the Unfair Trade Practices Act. Although punitive damages are generally limited to attorneys’ fees for defamation and infliction of emotional distress, there are no such limits for punitive damages under that act.
All 15 plaintiffs gave emotional testimony during the trial, describing how they have been threatened and harassed for years by people who believe the shooting didn’t happen.
Strangers showed up at some of their homes and confronted some of them in public. People hurled abusive comments at them on social media and in emails. And some said they received death and rape threats.
In a calculation in a plaintiffs’ court filing, they said Jones’ comments about Sandy Hook were viewed an estimated 550 million times on his and Infowars’ social media accounts from 2012 to 2018. They said that translated into 550 million violations of the Unfair Trade Practices Act.
“If each of the 550 million violations were assessed at the $5,000 statutory maximum, the total civil penalty would be $2,750,000,000,000 ($2.75 trillion),” their attorneys wrote.
They also said punitive damages for violations of the unfair trade practices law typically are multiple times more than compensatory damages.
Jones has said on his Infowars show that it doesn’t matter how large the damages awards are, because he doesn’t have $2 million to his name and he wouldn’t be able to pay the full amounts.
That contradicted testimony at a similar trial in Texas in August, when a jury ordered Jones to pay nearly $50 million to the parents of one of the children killed in the Sandy Hook shooting due to his lies about the massacre.
A forensic economist testified that Jones and Free Speech Systems, Infowars’ parent company, have a combined net worth as high as $270 million, which Jones disputes. Free Speech Systems filed for bankruptcy protection in the middle of the trial in Texas, while a third trial over the hoax conspiracy is planned around the end of the year.
Jones has vowed to appeal all the verdicts against him related to Sandy Hook.