A Texas jury has returned a nearly $50 million judgment in a libel lawsuit against extremist talk show host Alex Jones for claiming the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting was a hoax. He was being sued by the parents of a 6-year-old boy killed in the drama.
At issue is whether the Texas law will save the Infowars host and his company Free Speech Systems tens of millions under a 19-year-old law limiting the amount a jury can make a jury pay. a plaintiff?
The answer will likely be decided during the appeals process, but if the legal limit is applied by the courts to Jones’ case, he could be forced to pay less than $5 million in total damages, according to reports. legal experts.
What was the Jones judgment?
On August 4, a Texas jury in Austin awarded Neil Heslin and Scarlett Lewis $4.1 million in compensatory damages for the mental anguish and reputational damage inflicted on them by Jones’ crusade for prove that the massacre was a hoax. Their son, Jesse Lewis, was shot and killed in the Sandy Hook massacre. The jury did not award money to compensate for any financial losses the couple may have suffered as a result of Jones’ statements.
A day later, the same jury hit Jones with an additional $45.2 million in punitive damages — which exist to punish the defendant, rather than compensate the victims.
The parents’ lawsuit had sought $150 million in compensatory damages and additional punitive damages.
Jones’ attorneys said they plan to appeal both damages.
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What does the law say about punitive damages?
In a civil suit, there are two types of damages: compensatory and punitive.
Compensatory damages are a combination of awards for economic losses as well as non-economic losses, which include impacts on the plaintiff’s reputation and emotional, physical or mental health.
Punitive damages, although also paid to the plaintiff, are there to punish and deter the defendant.
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A Texas jury can choose any dollar amount to award in punitive damages, but civil statute limits the amount of punitive damages the defendant can ultimately be ordered to pay.
The law governing punitive damages allows plaintiffs to collect up to twice what was awarded in economic compensatory damages – plus the same amount awarded in non-economic compensatory damages, the latter being limited to $750,000.
In Jones’ case, Jesse Lewis’ parents were awarded $4.1 million in compensatory damages, but none of it was specified as economic damages.
That means Jones’ punitive damages, which were $45.2 million, could be capped at $750,000 if the courts decide the cap applies. Add that to the $4.1 million, and the parents could end up raising just $4.85 million in total, less than 10% of what the jury awarded them last week.
Texas juries are not allowed to be told about the cap on punitive damages, so jurors may return a verdict much higher than the cap, unaware that the plaintiff may never see that full amount.
The exact amount of punitive damages a defendant ends up paying — including whether or not the cap applies — is usually decided by judges as part of the appeals process.
Are there exceptions?
The law allows an exception to the cap if the actions that triggered the lawsuit are part of a list of crimes, known as “cap busters”, which include murder, kidnapping, forgery, certain types of fraud and other – mostly violent – crimes.
Lawyer representing Jesse Lewis’s parents, Mark Bankston, told reporters before the $45.2 million in punitive damages were awarded that the Texas Supreme Court could remove the cap ‘on a case-by-case basis’ , but declined to say how it might happen in this case.
There is no lifetime limit to the amount of punitive damages a defendant can be forced to pay if sued multiple times. Jones faces more lawsuits from the parents of the Sandy Hook victims, and each of them will have their own judgments that may or may not be subject to limitations.
Why were the limits created?
The cap on punitive damages dates back to a 2003 measure, House Bill 4, a massive overhaul of the state’s civil litigation laws that the bill’s author says was intended to combat frivolous lawsuits or abusive.
“The problem that existed at the time was that there were a lot of lawsuits of questionable merit being filed where huge punitive damages were threatened,” said former state Rep. Joe Nixon, an attorney of Houston who authored sweeping changes to prosecutions in Texas in 2003.
Without limits on punitive damages, Nixon said, defendants in lawsuits were exposed to potentially unfair judgments — the threat of which would often push defendants into high-value settlements to avoid the potential for financial ruin.
Opponents argued that Nixon’s measure gave a free pass to extremely wealthy corporations that were bad actors.
The bill was one of the biggest pieces of legislation passed by the new GOP majority in the Texas House that year, the first time Republicans had controlled the Texas Legislature in 130 years.
Limitations on lawsuits, known to supporters as tort reform, had been blocked for years by the previous Democratic majority, so passing HB 4 was seen as a huge victory for conservatives. It was also a big part of the agenda of then-House Speaker Tom Craddick, who was in his first term in the role at the time and put intense pressure on his leadership team. to make it law.
Much of it has passed along partisan lines.
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune.