A Texas jury has determined Infowars host Alex Jones must pay the parents of a Sandy Hook school shooting victim $45.2 million in punitive damages. The Friday decision comes a day after the same jury awarded the plaintiffs $4.1 million in compensatory damages, culminating the final phase of a defamation case first brought in 2018 over Jones’s repeated false claims that the deadliest elementary school shooting in U.S. history was a hoax.
Jones was not in court as the jury read the unanimous verdict.
The damages phase of the trial that ended Friday marks the first time Jones, an influential purveyor of far-right conspiracy theories, has faced financial repercussions in court for the outlandish lies he told via his Infowars broadcast about the shooting. Since the early days that followed the 2012 shooting that killed 26 people, including 20 young children, Jones said on his program that “no one died” at Sandy Hook and that the attack was a ruse “staged” by gun-control advocates to manufacture anti-gun sentiment.
In the case brought by Neil Heslin and Scarlett Lewis, the parents of 6-year-old Jesse Lewis, the damages hint at what Jones could face in the months ahead in his additional Sandy Hook defamation cases in Texas and Connecticut.
It remains to be seen how much of the punitive damages the parents will ultimately receive as Texas laws cap such awards per plaintiff at twice the compensatory award plus $750,000, according to Carl Tobias, a tort law expert at the University of Richmond School of Law.
That calculation means the plaintiffs could see less than a quarter of the total award determined by the jury, and that amount could be even further reduced if the compensatory damages are for non-economic reasons, such as emotional distress rather than lost wages, Tobias said.
Punitive damages are meant to sting, Tobias said, so juries tend to award sums proportionate to the defendant’s finances despite many states contradictorily having caps on such awards.
“The theory is that the damages are supposed to be significant enough to deter the person who did this — and other members of society,” he said.
Jurors on Friday heard additional testimony about Jones’s finances before they began deliberations on what sum would both punish Jones for his falsehoods and deter him from making them again.
In court Friday, Bernard Pettingill, Jr., a forensic economist and former economics professor at the Florida Institute of Technology, testified he estimated the combined net worth of Jones and his business entities to be between $135 million and $270 million.
“You cannot separate Alex Jones from the companies. He is the companies,” Pettingill said.
The testimony is in stark contrast to Jones’s public statements that he is financially bereft; his defense team originally asked the jury to award the plaintiffs $1 for each claim after contending Jones lost millions of dollars and followers when he was kicked off social media platforms like YouTube and Spotify.
Free Speech Systems, the parent company for the Infowars website, filed for bankruptcy during the trial, though Pettingill and other witnesses said it was impossible to fully scrutinize Jones’s finances since he failed to provide documents to the court.
Jones’s refusal to comply with court orders around documents and other evidence resulted in District Judge Maya Guerra Gamble of Travis County, Tex., issuing default judgments against Jones last September, which made him liable for all damages.
But in a dramatic courtroom moment Wednesday, it was revealed that Jones’s legal team inadvertently sent the contents of his cellphone to a lawyer representing the parents. The apparent blunder led the plaintiff’s attorney Mark Bankston to accuse Jones of lying under oath when he testified that he did not have any text messages related to the Sandy Hook massacre.
During the jury’s deliberations, Jones’s lawyers requested a mistrial and demanded that Bankston delete the phone data they had handed over, which the judge denied.
Jones’s lawyers have said the legal battle against him is an attack on First Amendment rights, while the parents’ legal team argued that his rhetoric was defamatory and not protected.
Heslin and Lewis testified during the nearly two-week defamation phase of the case that Jones’s relentless false claims that their son never died and that they were “crisis actors” created a “living hell” for them.
While on the stand Tuesday, Heslin said as he grieved his son, he also contended with death threats and abuse from those who embraced Jones’s rhetoric.
“I can’t even describe the last nine and a half years, the living hell that I and others have had to endure because of the recklessness and negligence of Alex Jones,” Heslin told the jury.
In his closing arguments Friday, Bankston said jurors are tasked with punishing and deterring Jones with their verdict and implored them to use their vote to “stop Alex Jones.”
“Truly, you have the ability today to stop this man from ever doing this again: from continuing to tear the fabric of our society apart for the great monetary gain that he has received thus far,” Bankston said.
“Speech is free,” he added. “Lies, you pay for.”
Meryl Kornfield contributed to this report.