A Texas jury on Saturday ordered Infowars’ Alex Jones to pay US$49.3 million (NZ$79.1 million) in total damages to the parents of a first-grader killed in the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, which the conspiracy theorist falsely called a hoax orchestrated by the government in order to tighten US gun laws.
The amount is less than the US$150 million sought by Neil Heslin and Scarlett Lewis, whose 6-year-old son Jesse Lewis was among 19 children and six educators killed in the deadliest classroom shooting in US history.
The trial is the first time Jones has been held financially liable for peddling lies about the 2012 attack in Newtown, Connecticut.
Jurors at first awarded Heslin and Lewis US$4.1 million in compensatory damages, which Jones called a major victory. But in the final phase of the two-week trial, the same Austin jury came back and tacked on an additional US$45.2 million in punitive damages.
Punitive damages are meant to punish defendants for particularly egregious conduct, beyond monetary compensation awarded to the individuals they hurt. A high punitive award is also seen as a chance for jurors to send a wider societal message and a way to deter others from the same abhorrent conduct in the future.
Attorneys for the family had urged jurors to hand down a financial punishment that would put Infowars out of business.
“You have the ability to stop this man from ever doing it again,” Wesley Ball, an attorney for the parents, told the jury.
It’s unclear how much money Jones and Infowars’ parent company, Free Speech Systems, have.
An economist hired by the plaintiffs testified that Jones and the company are worth up to $270 million, suggesting that Jones was still making money.
But Jones testified that any award over $2 million would “sink us.” And Free Speech Systems filed for bankruptcy protection during the trial’s first week.
Jones still faces two other defamation lawsuits from Sandy Hook families in Texas and Connecticut.