State District Judge Maya Guerra Gamble announced Tuesday she plans to order InfoWars founder Alex Jones to pay the full $49.3 million an Austin jury awarded the parents of 6-year-old Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting victim Jesse Lewis earlier this year, despite a Texas law that caps punitive damages.
After a two-week trial in July and August, an Austin jury awarded Jesse Lewis’ parents, Neil Heslin and Scarlett Lewis, $4.1 million in compensatory damages for defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress by Jones, who for years spread false conspiracy theories claiming the parents were “crisis actors” and the Sandy Hook shooting was a hoax meant to further gun control. The jury subsequently added $45.2 million in punitive damages to Jones' penalty, for a total $49.3 million.
Texas law, however, caps punitive damages, which are intended to punish the defendant and deter similar behavior, at two times the amount of economic damages plus an additional $750,000 or less.
Lawyers for Heslin and Lewis, and lawyers for Jones and his trial attorney Andino Reynal appeared Tuesday in a Travis County state District Court to present their arguments to Guerra Gamble on whether she should rule the Heslin and Lewis case to be an exception to the state cap.
Heslin and Lewis’ attorneys argued that Texas’ punitive damages cap does not apply to cases in which a defendant “intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly caused serious mental deficiency, impairment, or injury to disabled individuals.” They argued that Heslin and Lewis were experiencing debilitating grief and trauma from the loss of their son after Jones’ Sandy Hook conspiracy theories led to nearly a decade of harassment and threats from his followers, causing additional emotional harm.
Lawyers for Jones and his primary company, Free Speech Systems, disagreed, arguing that any emotional injuries Jones caused were not severe enough to qualify for an exception to the cap.
But after a day of arguments, Guerra Gamble questioned the constitutionality of the punitive damages cap.
“Sometimes you are so busy working you forget what you swore to do. … One thing this case has done for me, has made me stop and say, ‘Are we all, lawyers and judges, remembering the oaths we have taken?’” said Guerra Gamble, who announced she plans to enter a judgment for the full amount of the jury's verdict in this case.
“There is no question to me that this is a rare instance, I hope it remains a rare instance, where a defendant intentionally inflicted severe emotional distress, in a manner so unusual that the victims had no other recognized theory of redress. I feel like this case perfectly falls into that exception,” Guerra Gamble said Tuesday.
“This person and this company have done something horrible. Now that horrible thing caused a certain amount of damages – a lot – but not enough to make sure this person and company and other people and companies don't ever do this again, because (Jones) also made a tremendous amount of money from this,” Guerra Gamble said. So, "then the jury said we need to punish them so that they don't do this again, and nobody else thinks this is an OK thing to do again, or an affordable thing to do.”
Avi Moshenberg, an attorney for the Sandy Hook families, told the American-Statesman in a statement that he agreed with the court’s finding.
“The Court could not have expressed any better that the point of punitive damages is to make an example of our country’s worst behavior,” Moshenberg said. “We are proud to be a part of the effort to make an example of Alex Jones, who committed one of the most appalling acts of defamation in American history.”
Andino Reynal, who represents Jones, told Reuters on Tuesday he plans to appeal the judgment, which is one of several lawsuits Jones has faced for spreading lies about the Sandy Hook mass shooting that left 20 children and six adults dead.
In October, a Connecticut judge ruled Jones must pay more than $1.4 billion in damages in a separate lawsuit filed by several families of Sandy Hook victims. Next year, Jones will be brought to trial in Austin for two additional, separate lawsuits brought by Leonard Pozner and Veronique De La Rosa, the parents of 6-year-old Sandy Hook victim Noah Pozner, and Marcel Fontaine, who InfoWars mistakenly identified as a suspect in the 2018 shooting at a high school in Parkland, Fla.
On Tuesday, attorneys for Heslin and Lewis also argued that Guerra Gamble should sanction Jones and his trial attorney Andino Reynal for trial misconduct and for a “bad faith” bankruptcy filing for Jones’ InfoWars that ultimately delayed the trial in April. Guerra Gamble heard arguments from both sides for each of the motions to sanction, but she did not issue a ruling on either Tuesday.
In the middle of the Heslin and Lewis trial in July, Jones’ Free Speech Systems filed for bankruptcy, which Sandy Hook families allege Jones is using to move money around and avoid paying the massive court judgments he owes victims’ families.
This article originally appeared on Austin American-Statesman: Texas judge says Alex Jones will pay full $49.3M to Sandy Hook parents