Alex Jones owes $965 million to eight family members of Sandy Hook shooting victims and a first responder. But it’s far from clear how much of that money they’ll ever see.
Jones got hit with this breathtaking jury prize Wednesday for compensatory damages caused by his repeated lies about the shooting. Plaintiffs in the case in a Connecticut court testified to pain and suffering caused by Jones’ false claims that the shooting 2012 was staged, and that families and first responders were “crisis actors”.
A separate pair of family members in a similar costume in Texas won a $49.3 million jury verdict in August. But $45.2 million of that award was punitive damages, which may be reduced due to Texas law.
The issue of punitive damages in the Connecticut lawsuit will now be considered by the judge, not the jury, whose work on the case is complete, said plaintiffs’ attorney Christopher Mattei. The judge will also consider what attorney fees should be awarded. For these reasons, the amount of damages could increase in the coming weeks, Mattei said.
Jones, who plans to appeal the verdict, said on his Infowars show on Wednesday that there “is no money” to pay the massive amount the Connecticut jury awarded to plaintiffs.
Legal experts said there was a good chance the final amount would be reduced, either by the trial judge, an appeals court or a bankruptcy court. After being found guilty by default judgment – but before the start of the damages part of the trial – Jones filed for bankruptcy protection for his company, Free Speech Systems, in an effort to save him from being wiped out by the judgment.
It’s also possible plaintiffs’ attorneys could negotiate a reduced settlement with Jones, said Michael Rustad, a law professor at Boston’s Suffolk University who has studied jury verdicts.
“There may be settlements after the dust settles, after negotiations about what the defendant can pay,” Rustad said. “Plaintiffs will often enter into negotiations after a trial court verdict after fearing that if it went to the appeal court they might get less.”
But Mattei said he was not concerned about a court ordering a reduction.
“In Connecticut, we are very respectful of the wisdom and judgment of juries,” he said. “I believe the verdict is reasonable and justified by the evidence presented.”
Rustad said the fact that it is compensatory damages, designed to make plaintiffs whole for a loss, rather than punitive damages, designed to punish a defendant for wrongdoing, strengthens the case for the complainants.
But the fact that the verdict amount does not relate to strictly economic damages, such as lost wages or the cost of medical care, could still make it vulnerable to a reduction by the court, Rustad said.
Although there were reports that family members had to pay for increased security due to harassment caused by Jones’ broadcasts, most of the damages were aimed at compensating them for the emotional distress he caused them. caused.
The plaintiffs in the case said the reason they sued was to stop Alex Jones from continuing to spread lies and hurt other people.
“Money is all Alex Jones cares about, and the only way to even begin to begin to explain…how he made us feel” is to touch his pocket, Erica Lafferty, the daughter of Sandy Hook Principal and shooting victim Dawn Hochsprung, Anderson Cooper said Wednesday. “That’s what’s going to keep him from doing this to other families.”
But that may not be enough to prevent the verdict from being reduced.
“The trial judge has broad discretion to determine whether the jury award is the result of passion or prejudice,” Rustad said. The fact that Jones can be reviled and that complainants are so sympathetic should not be a factor, he added.
“In the justice system, Alex Jones and Mother Teresa should be treated the same,” Rustad said.
But that doesn’t mean Jones will escape payment, CNN legal analyst Paul Callan said.
“It’s not unusual for a big verdict to be overturned,” Callan told Cooper on Wednesday. “But let’s face it, he faces a billion dollar liability. Even if it is reduced to 500 or 300 million dollars, it will still be a colossal and enormous sum of money, sufficient to destroy it financially.
Callan said it would be difficult for Jones to use bankruptcy to shield himself from any final judgment.
“When the conduct at issue is intentional and fraudulent, the courts are very reluctant to allow you to avoid judgment by filing for bankruptcy,” he said. “Thus, this judgment could hang over his head for the rest of his life.”
The real question is how much money does Jones actually have and how successful will the plaintiffs be in finding and collecting those funds.
In the separate defamation lawsuit heard in Texas last summer, Jones said a jury award of just $2 million would destroy him financially. But an economist hired by those plaintiffs, Bernard Pettingill, Jr., said his estimates show Jones has a net worth of between $135 million and $270 million and that Jones uses a series of shell companies to hide his money.
“If you’re a thorough investigator, you can expose these frauds, find the money and get the money back,” Callan said Wednesday after the verdict.
Even Mattei admits that Jones cannot immediately pay the full amount of the verdict.
“It’s unlikely that he or his company will have the ability to pay at this time, but what is likely is that the verdict will follow him,” he said. “We will hunt down all his assets. Anything in there will be salvaged.
– CNN’s Oliver Darcy and Brian Stelter contributed to this report