A Texas jury has awarded a nearly $50 million judgment in a defamation trial against extremist talk show host Alex Jones for claiming the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting was a hoax. He was sued by the parents of a 6-year-old boy killed in the tragedy.
The question is, will Texas law spare the Infowars host and his company Free Speech Systems tens of millions under a 19-year-old statute limiting the amount that a jury can make a plaintiff pay?
The answer is likely to be decided during the appeals process, but if the statutory limit is applied by the courts to Jones’ case, he could be forced to pay less than $5 million in total damages, legal experts say.
What was the Jones judgment?
On Aug. 4, a Texas jury in Austin awarded Neil Heslin and Scarlett Lewis $4.1 million in compensatory damages for the mental anguish and reputation damage inflicted on them by Jones’ crusade to prove the massacre a hoax. Their son, Jesse Lewis, was fatally shot during the Sandy Hook massacre. The jury did not award any money to compensate for financial losses the couple may have suffered as a result of Jones’ statements.
A day later, the same jury hit Jones with another $45.2 million in punitive damages — which exist for the purposes of punishing the defendant, rather than compensating the victims.
The parents’ lawsuit had asked for $150 million in compensatory damages and additional punitive damages.
Jones’ attorneys have said they plan to appeal both damage awards.
What does the law say about punitive damages?
In a civil lawsuit, there are two types of damages: compensatory and punitive.
Compensatory damages are a combination of awards for economic losses as well as noneconomic losses, which include the impacts on the plaintiff’s reputation and their emotional, physical or mental health.
Punitive damages, though also paid to the plaintiff, are there to punish and deter the defendant.
A Texas jury can choose any dollar amount to award when it comes to punitive damages, but the civil statute does limit the amount in punitive damages the defendant may ultimately be forced to pay.
The law guiding punitive damages allows plaintiffs to collect up to twice what was awarded in economic compensatory damages — plus the same amount as was awarded in noneconomic compensatory damages, with the latter limited to $750,000.
In Jones’ case, Jesse Lewis’ parents were awarded $4.1 million in compensatory damages, but none of that has been specified as economic damages.
That means Jones’ punitive damages, which amounted to $45.2 million, could be limited to $750,000 if courts decide that the cap does apply. Add that to the $4.1 million, and the parents could wind up collecting 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 hand down a verdict much higher than the cap, not knowing the plaintiff may never see that total amount.
Exactly how much in punitive damages a defendant ends up paying — including whether the cap applies at all — is something typically decided by judges in the appeals process.
Are there exceptions?
The law allows for an exception to the cap if the actions that triggered the lawsuit are one of a list of felonies, known as “cap busters,” that include murder, kidnapping, forgery, some types of fraud and other — mostly violent — crimes.
The attorney representing Jesse Lewis’ parents, Mark Bankston, told reporters before the $45.2 million in punitive damages was awarded that the Texas Supreme Court could remove the cap “on a case-by-case basis” but declined to say how that might happen in this case.
There is no lifetime limit on the amount of punitive damages a defendant can be forced to pay if they are sued several times. Jones faces more lawsuits by parents of Sandy Hook victims, and each of them will have their own judgments that may or may not be subject to the limits.
Why were the limits created?
The cap on punitive damage awards traces back to a 2003 measure, House Bill 4, a massive overhaul of the state’s civil litigation laws that the bill’s author said was intended to fight frivolous or abusive lawsuits.
“The problem that existed at the time was that there were a lot of lawsuits of questionable merit being brought where huge punitive damages were being threatened,” said former state Rep. Joe Nixon, a Houston lawyer who authored the sweeping changes to Texas lawsuits 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-dollar settlements in order to avoid the potential for financial ruin.
Opponents argued that Nixon’s measure gave a pass to extremely wealthy companies that were bad actors.
The bill was one of the biggest pieces of legislation to be passed by the new GOP majority in the Texas House that year, the first time Republicans had controlled the Texas Legislature in 130 years.
Lawsuit limitations, known by supporters as tort reform, had been blocked for years by the previous Democratic majority, so the passage of HB 4 was considered an enormous victory for conservatives. It was also a major part of the agenda of then-House Speaker Tom Craddick, who was in his first term in that role at the time and who laid intense pressure on his leadership team to make it law.
It passed largely along partisan lines.
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune.