By Jack Queen
(Reuters) - U.S. conspiracy theorist Alex Jones faces trial this week in Connecticut to determine how much he must pay a group of families of victims of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting that left 26 dead, including 20 children, for falsely claiming it was a hoax. A jury in Texas, where Jones' radio show and webcast is based, last month held that he must pay two parents of a child killed in the Newtown, Connecticut, massacre $49.3 million.
Here is a breakdown of the lawsuits against Jones and what comes next for Jones and Free Speech Systems LLC, the parent company of his right-wing website Infowars.
THE CONNECTICUT CASE
In the Connecticut trial beginning this week, 13 family members of Sandy Hook victims as well as one FBI agent are seeking damages from Jones and Free Speech Systems for claiming they were “crisis actors” who lied about their relatives’ deaths as part of a gun-grabbing conspiracy by the U.S. government.
“He urged the audience to ‘investigate,’ knowing his audience would respond by cyberstalking, harassing, and threatening the plaintiffs,” the families said of Jones in their 2018 lawsuit.
The trial follows more than four years of delays after Jones failed to comply with court orders and the plaintiffs' requests for documents, leading a judge to issue a default judgment against him last November. The trial concerns only how much Jones and his company must pay in damages.
Free Speech Systems filed for bankruptcy in August -- which typically shields companies from lawsuits -- but later agreed to face the trial.
It is scheduled to last four weeks.
THE TEXAS VERDICT
A Texas jury held in August that Jones and Free Speech Systems must pay Sandy Hook parents Neil Heslin and Scarlett Lewis $49.3 million based on similar allegations. As in Connecticut, Jones had been found liable in a default judgment for flouting court orders.
The verdict consisted of $4.1 million in compensatory damages to cover Heslin and Lewis’ losses from emotional distress. The remaining $45.3 million came as punitive damages, which are intended to punish defendants for their conduct.
The outcome means the verdict could be slashed significantly because Texas law caps non-economic punitive damages at $750,000 per count.
The parents' lawyers contend the cap does not apply and are seeking the full amount.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR INFOWARS?
The Sandy Hook parents in the Connecticut case have asked the judge overseeing Free Speech Systems’ bankruptcy to remove the company's existing management from the process and appoint a committee to represent them in the proceedings, claiming Jones’ company cannot be trusted to deal in good faith.
The parents said in a July filing in Texas bankruptcy court that the Infowars parent had transferred millions of dollars to Jones and entities he controls since filing for bankruptcy in a bid to shield its assets.
Jones said during an August broadcast that the bankruptcy will help him keep Infowars on the air and avoid paying any judgments for years as he appeals.
Jones has also told listeners that Infowars is fighting for its life and urged them to purchase its supplements and his forthcoming book to buoy its finances through the litigation.
An attorney representing Free Speech Systems in the bankruptcy case said during a recent hearing that sales and preorders have soared since the Texas trial.
Infowars brings in around $80 million in annual revenue, Jones testified during the Texas trial. He and his companies are worth as much as $270 million, according to a plaintiffs’ accounting expert.
(The story corrects third paragraph to show that the plaintiffs include 13 family members of Sandy Hook victims and one FBI agent, not 14 family members.)
(Reporting by Jack Queen; Editing by Noeleen Walder, Amy Stevens and Mark Porter)