Alex Jones owes $965 million to eight family members of Sandy Hook shooting victims and a first responder. But it is far from clear how much of that money they’ll ever see.
Jones was hit with that staggering jury award Wednesday for compensatory damages caused by his repeated lies about the shooting. Plaintiffs in the case in a Connecticut court testified about the pain and suffering caused by Jones’ false claims that the 2012 shooting was staged, and that the families and first responders were “crisis actors.”
A separate pair of family members in a similar suit in Texas won a $49.3 million jury verdict in August. But $45.2 million of that award was for punitive damages, which may be reduced due to a Texas statute.
The question of punitive damages in the Connecticut trial will now be considered by the judge, not the jury, whose work on the case is done, said Christopher Mattei, an attorney for the plaintiffs. The judge will also consider what attorney fees should be awarded. For those reasons, the amount of the damages could grow in the coming weeks, Mattei said.
Jones, who plans to appeal the verdict, said during his Infowars broadcast Wednesday that there “ain’t no money” to pay the massive figure the Connecticut jury awarded the plaintiffs.
Legal experts said there is a good chance the final amount will be reduced, either by the trial judge, an appeals court or a bankruptcy court. After he was found guilty in a default judgment — but before the damages portion of the trial began — Jones filed for bankruptcy protection for his company, Free Speech Systems, in a bid to protect it from being wiped out by the judgment.
It is also possible the plaintiffs’ attorneys could negotiate a reduced settlement with Jones, said Michael Rustad, a law professor at Suffolk University in Boston who has studied jury verdicts.
“There can be settlements after dust has settled, after negotiations about what the defendant can pay,” Rustad said. “The plaintiffs will often engage in negotiations after a trial court verdict after concern that if it goes to appellate court, they could get less.”
But Mattei said he’s not concerned about a court ordering a reduction.
“In Connecticut, we’re very deferential to wisdom and judgment of juries,” he said. “I think the verdict is reasonable and justified by the evidence presented.”
Rustad said the fact that these are compensatory damages, designed to make plaintiffs whole for a loss, rather than punitive damages, designed to punish a defendant for wrongdoing, does bolster the plaintiffs’ case.
But the fact that the amount of the verdict is not for strictly economic damages, such as lost wages or the cost of medical care, could still make it vulnerable to being reduced by the court, Rustad said.
Although there was some testimony about family members having to pay for increased security due to harassment caused by Jones’ broadcasts, most of the damages were to compensate them for the emotional distress he caused them.
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 that Alex Jones cares about, and the only way to even begin to start to explain … how he’s made us feel” is to hit his pocket, Erica Lafferty, the daughter of Sandy Hook Principal and shooting victim Dawn Hochsprung, told Anderson Cooper Wednesday. “It’s the thing that is going to prevent him from doing this to other families.”
But that may not be enough to stop the verdict from being reduced.
“The trial judge has a vast amount of discretion to consider if the jury award is the result of passion or prejudice,” Rustad said. The fact that Jones might be reviled, and the plaintiffs are so sympathetic, shouldn’t 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 paying up, said Paul Callan, a CNN legal analyst.
“It’s not unusual for a big verdict to get knocked down,” Callan told Cooper Wednesday. “But let’s face it, he’s facing a billion dollars in liability. Even if it’s knocked down to $500 million, or $300 million, it still will be a colossal, enormous amount of money, enough to destroy him financially.”
Callan said it will be difficult for Jones to use bankruptcy to shield himself from whatever the final judgment is.
“When the conduct involved is intentional and fraudulent, the courts are very hesitant to allow you to get from under a judgment by claiming bankruptcy,” he said. “So 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 finding and collecting those funds.
In the separate defamation suit heard in Texas this past summer, Jones testified that a jury award of just $2 million would destroy him financially. But an economist hired by those plaintiffs, Bernard Pettingill, Jr., testified that 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 careful investigator, you can expose these frauds, and track the money down and collect the money,” Callan said Wednesday after the verdict.
Even Mattei concedes that Jones cannot immediately pay the full amount of the verdict.
“Whether he or his company has the ability to pay right now is unlikely, but what is likely is the verdict will follow him around,” he said. “We will hunt down all his assets. Whatever is there will be subject to recovery.”
– CNN’s Oliver Darcy and Brian Stelter contributed to this report