Texas jurors award Sandy Hook parents $45.2 million in punitive damages
Kirk McDaniel/Courthouse News
AUSTIN, Texas (CN) — After nearly five hours of deliberations, a Texas jury on Friday unanimously awarded two Sandy Hook parents $45.2 million in punitive damages against Austin-based conspiracy theorist Alex Jones.
The final verdict comes a day after Neil Heslin and Scarlett Lewis won $4.1 million in compensatory damages, bringing the total to $49.3 million.
The punitive damages award serves as the capstone to the intense two-week trial. An attorney for Heslin and Lewis – the parents of 6-year-old Jesse Lewis, who was killed in the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut – had asked the jury to award them $145.9 million in punitive damages.
After the verdict was read, Jones’ attorney Andino Reynal said he will be filing a motion to reduce the amount of punitive damages awarded.
“The verdict does not conform to Chapter 41 of the Texas Civil Practices and Remedies code,” Reynal said.
Under Texas law, punitive damages may not exceed two times the amount of economic damages, which in this case is the $4.1 million awarded on Thursday.
Travis County District Court Judge Maya Gamble said in response, “We do have laws in Texas where we claim to trust our juries, and then we don’t trust our juries, that is true. I am sure the judgment will properly reflect the laws of the State of Texas.”
Jones was found liable last year of defaming and causing the emotional distress of Heslin and Lewis by repeatedly stating falsely on his Infowars show that the shooting was a staged event perpetrated by the U.S. government as a ploy to enact strict gun control legislation. Judge Gamble issued a default judgment against Jones after he failed to comply with requests for documents.
Before being sent to deliberate Friday, jurors heard from the trial’s final witness, Bernard Pettingill, an economic expert called by the plaintiffs to shed light on the net worth of Jones and his company, Free Speech Systems LLC. Pettingill said the conspiracy theorist was a pioneer in the early years of producing online content.
"Believe me, Alex Jones, as much of maverick that he is, as much of an outsider that he is, is a very, very successful man," said Pettingill.
Combined, Pettingill estimated that Jones and Free Speech Systems are worth in the range of $135 million to $270 million. The expert told the jury that from 2015 to 2018, Jones was paid $18 million from his company. In 2021 alone, the year Jones lost the case via the default judgment, he was paid $61.9 million.
Following Pettingill’s testimony, the parents' attorney Wesley Ball began his closing arguments.
Ball said he was grateful to the jury for its compensatory damages award of $4.1 million to Heslin and Lewis for the damage caused to their reputation and emotional wellbeing. Shifting to the topic of punitive damages, Ball said that the jury now has the opportunity to punish Jones by putting an end to his platform.
“With your voice in this trial, you have a chance to send a message to everyone in this country and around the world, and that message is to stop Alex Jones and stop the monetization of misinformation,” he said.
Ball said that while the jury does not have the power to change Jones, they have the opportunity to punish him for the misinformation he has profited from spreading on Infowars. The attorney illustrated the controversial radio host's inability to change by how he used the trial as a subject on his show.
Jones has, on several occasions, spoken directly about the trial on Infowars. At one point he questioned the intelligence of Heslin by calling him slow and also broadcast an image of the judge on fire. Throughout this process, Jones has maintained that the trial is a part of a scheme to strip him of his free speech rights and has urged his followers to purchase products from his online store to support him.
“He’ll make $4.1 million back in a month... what will it take to punish and deter this man?” Ball said. “He won't stop… unless you stop him."
Ball asked the jury to award the parents $145.9 million in punitive damages, which would bring the total to the $150 million that Heslin and Lewis initially asked for.
In his closing arguments for Jones, Reynal also thanked the jury for their $4.1 million verdict, but unlike Ball, called it reasonable and said it sent a message to all talk show hosts that they must do better.
“Alex Jones is a talk show host whose byline is tomorrow's news today,” said Reynal. “He ran with a story irresponsibly, he shouldn't have done it, he explained to you why it happened and [why it shouldn't happen again]. He has changed.”
Reynal said that despite Jones’ acknowledgment of wrongdoing in his coverage of Sandy Hook, the mainstream media and politicians have weaponized his client's past as a means to silence him. The attorney even shifted focus to government officials who “dropped the ball” during mass shootings as a way to illustrate Jones’ coverage in an investigative context.
The attorney asked the jury to return an award proportionate to the number of hours Jones spent covering the Sandy Hook shooting, which he said would be around $270,000.