AUSTIN (KXAN) — Last week, an Austin jury returned a multi-million dollar verdict against Infowars host Alex Jones, but there are still questions about how much money the plaintiffs in the case will actually receive.
The parents of a Sandy Hook victim sued the talk show host and conspiracy theorist over comments on his show, saying the shooting was fake, and parents were crisis actors. The jury said Jones should not only pay these parents more than $4 million to compensate them for actual damages to their reputation and for inflicting mental anguish, but it also returned a second verdict of more than $45 million in punitive damages or punishment for his actions.
However, all eyes are on a Texas law that caps punitive damages and could reduce the amount of money the parents see from this award.
Minutes after the verdict, Jones’ defense attorney Andino Reynal announced he would be filing a motion under the Civil Practice and Remedies Code, which limits punitive awards at two times the amount of economic damages in a case, plus the amount of noneconomic damages found by the jury — which is not to exceed $750,000.
In this case, attorneys said were no economic damages found, only non-economic.
Reynal said he believes the max amount the family will see is $750,000 per plaintiff or $1.5 million total.
The family’s attorneys disagree, saying it could be $750,000 for both Jones and his company per cause of action, which comes out to closer to $4.5 million in punitive damages.
One of their attorneys, Mark Bankston, told KXAN he believes there are other legal avenues he can use to try and get them the full amount, including challenging the constitutionality of any reduction to the award or pursuing the full amount in bankruptcy court.
Ronen Avraham, senior lecturer at the University of Texas School of Law, joined KXAN to weigh in.
Q: Can you give us a background on the cap on punitive damages in Texas and when all of that was put in place?
Avraham: These caps were originated by the Texas Legislature many decades ago. And in the past, the maximum punitive damages were four times the compensatory damages, in this case, the $4 million. But in 1995, the Texas Legislature reenacted those caps and made it just two times. So today, the law in Texas is that plaintiffs can get maximum two times of compensatory damages plus $750,000. For what’s called non-monetary damages, non-monetary damages is what, things like pain and suffering and mental anguish. So it’s really interesting, because I wasn’t able to get any information about whether the $4 million what’s the division between economic damages and pain and suffering damages, but this comes out to be really important for the maximum amount that the plaintiffs will be able to recover this case.
Q: A lot of the conversation at the courthouse was how much of that more than $4 million is considered economic or not. Without that insight, though, what do you think? How will these laws impact the payout in the Jones case? Do we know enough yet to say?
Avraham: You know, damages for defamation always comprise both economic and non-economic damages. So economic damages will be the parts related to the loss of income. The loss in your petition does cause loss of income, perhaps in some medical treatment, perhaps psychological treatments, these are real dollars. And these are what we call economic damages. And punitive damages could be maximum two times this amount. So let’s say that 50% of the formula in dollars is economic damages just for the sake of the argument, and 50% will be non-economic damages. That means that the punitive damages will be two times $2 million. So that’s $4 million. Plus there’s a cap of $750,000, for the pain and suffering. So we get $4 million and $750,000 just punitive damages, and add this to the original $4 million, we’re talking about almost $9 million overall damages. And this is just assuming for the sake of the argument that the original $4 million are divided 50-50 between economic and non economic damages.
Q: Can you just walk us through why plaintiffs in a case like this might ask for such a big payout if they know that there is a cap?
Avraham: So the law in most states is the jury doesn’t know about a cap. So the plaintiffs are trying to get us, you know, damages as high as they can. And the jury not knowing about the cap, may deliver, like in this case, an amount of $4 million. And that in that case, of course, the higher the damages are, the more likely the plaintiff is just to recover more so. And in addition, there’s also a message, because not every state has caps on damages. And I know that Alex Jones is also going to be sued or hasn’t been sued in Connecticut. And I’m not I don’t remember off the top of my head, whether there are caps or not. But if a jury in Texas, the words high punitive damages that may have an impact in other states where caps do not exist.