Sandy Hook families continue to break new legal ground with big court decisions over Infowars host Alex Jones and a major gun manufacturer
Dec. 12, 2022 Updated Mon., Dec. 12, 2022 at 9:58 p.m.
InfoWars founder Alex Jones speaks to the media outside Waterbury Superior Court during his trial on Sept. 21, 2022, in Waterbury, Connecticut. (Joe Buglewicz/Getty Images North America/TNS)
HARTFORD, Conn. – Relatives of the Sandy Hook shooting victims have won more than $1.5 billion in damages over the yearlong run-up to the 10-year remembrance of the murderous rampage at a Newtown elementary school.
There were defamation verdicts in Connecticut and Texas against the bombastic Infowars broadcaster Alex Jones and a settlement in Connecticut with a major gun manufacturer.
Both Connecticut cases reached the state Supreme Court.
In the gun case, the families broke new legal ground, persuading the justices to expand opportunities to collect damages by those hurt by unethical business behavior. There are questions in the defamation suits against Jones, in which his Sandy Hook denial broadcasts were found responsible for inspiring threats to the family members he called actors in a staged shooting, that are likely to be at the center of appeals.
Lawyers for the families in Connecticut, the Bridgeport firm Koskoff Koskoff & Bieder, told a jury in the Connecticut Jones case that the families’ goal is to “stop” him. The scorched earth character of the litigation may succeed.
The bulk of the damages – $1.4 billion in Connecticut and $49 million in Texas – were returned by juries against Jones. He and his wholly owned broadcast business, Free Speech Systems, have fled to the federal bankruptcy court in Texas for protection.
Bankruptcy experts say Jones may be delaying the inevitable. Without a reversal of the defamation verdicts, they said a bankruptcy court will identify what Jones owns and what he is likely to earn and order him to spend the foreseeable future turning it over to the families.
The balance of the $1.5 billion is a $73 million settlement the families leveraged in February from the manufacturer of the military-style, semiautomatic, assault rifle that 20-year-old Adam Lanza used to blast his way into Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14, 2012.
Lanza, a mentally unstable 20-year-old obsessed with violent video games, used a Bushmaster XM15-E2S, a semiautomatic assault rifle, to commit the mass shooting. When he showed interest in an elite branch of the U.S. Army, his mother bought it from a gun dealer in East Windsor, which obtained it from a distributor that bought it from its manufacturer, the Remington Arms Company.
The Bushmaster releases torrents of bullets at a velocity that, the families argued, creates shock waves that move through a body on impact, causing catastrophic damage to body parts distant from the immediate wound. Lanza used his mother’s rifle to kill 20 first -graders and six educators in about four-and-a-half minutes.
The families’ suit against Remington, one of the country’s oldest gun -makers, looked at the outset like a forlorn attempt to strike against what had become the weapon of choice in mass killings. The suit turned on the Bushmaster’s lethality and, ultimately, what the suit called an “unethical, oppressive, immoral and unscrupulous.”
What made the suit a long shot was a shield law called the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act that was pushed by the gun industry and enacted by Congress in 2005. It eliminated most suits against gun sellers and manufacturers by immunizing them from blame when their weapons were used in crimes. Backers said the law was needed to stop what they described as predatory and politically driven litigation.
But the shield law wasn’t airtight and the families found a loophole: Congress allowed suits against the industry in certain narrow circumstances, including cases in which sales and marketing strategies violated state law. The families argued that Remington violated a state consumer protection law called the Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices Act by marketing guns in a way that encouraged illegal behavior.
The families argued that Remington pitched the Bushmaster to civilians as a weapon of war and, in one of many appeals to exaggerated masculinity,and had the rifle featured in video games that portrayed combat violence. The suit claimed the marketing strategy targeted young, at-risk men like Lanza. and featured ads such as one displaying the rifle with the slogan “Consider Your Man Card Reissued”
Lanza, the suit argued, was deluged by advertising that appealed to his dream of becoming an Army Ranger and he was instructed on the Bushmaster’s use through his fascination with violent video games. Without a marketing campaign that promoted the Bushmaster and video placement that instructed Lanza on its use, the Sandy Hook attack might have been less deadly, the suit argued.
The Supreme Court ultimately agreed. The families, who sued in 2014, lost initially in the trial court, where the judge dismissed the suit, concluding it was barred by the federal shield law protecting the gun industry from liability. A divided Supreme Court disagreed and reversed the lower court in 2019 in a 4-3 decision.
The decision led to the settlement in February 2022. Remington, by then, had filed for bankruptcy twice, in large part due to lawsuits and retail sales restrictions following the Sandy Hook murders. Four of the company’s insurers agreed to pay the full amount of available coverage, $73 million, the families said.
“This victory should serve as a wake-up call not only to the gun industry, but also (to) the insurance and banking companies that prop it up. For the gun industry, it’s time to stop recklessly marketing all guns to all people for all uses and instead ask how marketing can lower risk rather than court it,” Josh Koskoff, one of their lawyers, said.
Alex Jones lawsuits
On Aug. 5, 2022, a jury in Texas ordered Jones to pay $4.1 million in compensatory damages and $45.2 million in punitive dangers to the parents of a murdered Sandy Hook first -grader who suedthere, charging they have been defamed and harassed for a decade as a result of Jones’ specious claims that they were actors in a hoax perpetrated by an evil cabal that staged the shootings as part of a plan to outlaw gun ownership.
Late last month, the Texas judge not only upheld the damage awards but refused to apply a Texas law that would have reduced the punitive damages by as much as $40 million, saying the law did not apply to a case involving the kind of emotional damage suffered by parents Neil Heslin and Scarlett Lewis.
On Oct. 12, a jury in Waterbury returned an extraordinarily $965 million compensatory damage verdict against Jones and for 14 relatives of nine shooting victims and an FBI agent who was part of the early law enforcement response. Judge Barbara Bellis added $473 million in punitive damage to the verdict a month later, finding that conduct by Jones and his broadcasting business was “intentional and malicious and certain to cause harm.”
“The record also establishes that the defendants repeated the conduct and attacks on the plaintiffs for nearly a decade, including during the trial. Wanton, malicious, and heinous conduct that caused harm to the plaintiffs,” the judge wrote. “This depravity and cruel, persistent course of conduct by the defendants establishes the highest degree of reprehensibility and blameworthiness.”
A third defamation suit by relatives of Sandy Hook victims is scheduled for trial in Texas early next year.
All three defamation suits have common elements, but the Waterbury case stands out for the number of plaintiffs, the collective weight of 15 accounts of torment and harassment at the hands of Sandy Hook deniers and animosity between the parties.
Bellis admonished the opposing lawyers repeatedly for bickering. There was an angry exchange late in the trial between Jones and Christopher Mattei, the family lawyer who was questioning him. Jones’ lawyer, Norm Pattis, stood apart, shouting, over and over, “objection,” to no avail. Bellis, looking resigned, let the argument run its course. Mattei accused Jones of putting “a target” on the backs of family members. Jones fired back, “Is this a struggle session? Are we in China? I’ve already said I’m sorry, and I’m done saying I’m sorry.”
The trial was dominated, as in Texas, by tearful accounts of the harassment family members said was inspired by Jones’ broadcasts, torment that began quickly and became so frightening that, within days of the shootings, authorities were taking security measures to protect mourners at children’s funerals. Lawyers for the families presented the jury with evidence that the harassment continued throughout the trial.
The relatives described being confronted by complete strangersat their homes, at shopping malls and while walking along a city street 3,000 miles from Newtown. All said they were the targets of what one parent called vicious threats on social media. The daughter of the murdered Sandy Hook Elementary School principal said she received rape threats in the mail. A parent said a Sandy Hook denier threatened to dig up his son’s grave to prove he had not been killed.
At the center of the families’ defamation case was the argument to jurors that Jones spread lies about the school shooting– not because he believed them to be true but because he had data showing his audience and sales spiked when he raged about a Sandy Hook hoax. His broadcast and internet platforms were described as designed to drive customers to his retail sites, where he pitched nutritional supplements, T-shirts and survivalist gear.
There was testimony that Jones’ Sandy Hook conspiracy programming generated more than a half billion impressions, or clicks, on social media.
The families are represented in the Connecticut defamation suit against Jones by the same lawyers who sued Remington. Both suits charged violations of the state’s unfair trade practices act. In the Jones suit, the claim was that he maliciously broadcast untruths in an unscrupulous pursuit of profit, harming the families in the process. In its verdict, the jury found a violation, allowing Bellis to impose unlimited punitive damages.
What began as defamation trials in both Connecticut and Texas ended up as hearings in damages because of default rulings against Jones by the judges. The defaults were rare judicial punishments imposed on Jones for failing to play by rules requiring opposing parties in suits to participate in the reciprocal, pretrial exchange of information, a process called discovery.
The default in Connecticut had the effect of finding Jones liable for the harm the families claimed to have suffered by finding his broadcasts responsible for inspiring the threats. The defaults limited Jones’ ability to defend himself and turned defamation trials into hearings on how much Jones owed the families.
Jones’ response to discovery orders could not have hurt him more. He could have turned over nothing to the families and taken a default. Or he could have complied and made a case contesting liability. Instead, he turned over just enough material to be defaulted, while giving the families evidentiary ammunition to use against him.
The default wasn’t the only sanction imposed on Jones. Earlier, Bellis denied him the opportunity to argue for an early dismissal of the suit on the grounds that it was an attempt to limit his speech rights.
Bellis said she was punishing Jones for, among other things, offering to pay a $1 million bounty if Mattei’s head were put on a pike. He made the threat on his broadcast after it was discovered that someone had inserted about a dozen pornographic images of children into about 58,000 email messages he turned over to the families in discovery.
The Supreme Court affirmed Belli’s sanction, writing “A party who places a one million dollar bounty on the head of opposing counsel, whether literally or figuratively in the form of his conviction, undeniably interferes with the proceedings.”
There is little sympathy for Jones among the many lawyers who followed the defamation trials, broadcast live across the internet. Some are frustrated that the default, which found Jones liable for harm caused by others, has lost the courts an opportunity to sort out an increasingly troublesome question in the digital age: To what extent are people responsible if their broadcast comments, on social media or other platforms, inspire others to threats or acts of violence.
It has become a troublesome question for the state judiciary, where judges have become targets of threatening internet postings by disgruntled litigants.
The judiciary may yet get the question. The default is likely to be at the center of Jones’ threatened appeal. Pattis already has raised it in a post-trial effort to set aside the $1.5 billion verdict.
“This case could have been really important with regard to Twitter and all the other platforms, about when people are responsible for their postings,” said Mark Dubois, a lawyer who followed the case. “When does speech turn into actionable conduct? There were fascinating issues here.
“I’m frustrated because instead of being a signal case that helps us figure out what you can say and when, it’s just kind of a zoo. It’s a wacky case with an insane judgment.”
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