Alex Jones has been ordered to pay $1 billion over his Sandy Hook lies. Will he?
Updated October 14, 2022 at 6:30 AM ET
For years, the conspiracy theorist and provocateur Alex Jones spread lies about the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, falsely claiming on his InfoWars broadcasts that none of the 20 children and six adults killed had actually died and that their relatives were crisis actors.
Now, he has been ordered to pay $965 million to families of those killed.
The verdict, returned Wednesday by a jury in Connecticut in a defamation trial, joins the $49 million awarded by a Texas jury earlier this year to another Sandy Hook family who had brought a separate case. A third case is tentatively set for later this year.
The total judgment against Jones has come to more than a billion dollars.
Now, a new question has arisen: How much of that money will the families actually see?
Jones's legal team has already vowed to appeal the awards. An appeals court could agree with their argument that the awards were excessive. On the other hand, Jones' bill could get even larger if courts award attorneys fees and punitive damages.
"It's hard to know exactly what happens next," said Sachin Pandya, a law professor at the University of Connecticut. "It's hard to find points of comparison, not just with respect to the large damage amounts, but because of the underlying conduct found by the jury to be so morally blameworthy, so egregious."
Broadcasting live as the verdict was read on Wednesday, Jones called the award a "joke" and a "travesty."
"Do these people think they're actually getting any money?" he said. "Literally, for hundreds of thousands of dollars, I can keep them in court for years."
What is Jones' financial situation like?
The defamation suits name as defendants both Jones and Infowars' parent company, Free Speech Systems.
Jones claims that he has less than $2 million to his name, repeating the claim during his Wednesday Infowars broadcast. Free Speech Systems, which also includes Jones's profitable business selling alternative medicines and survival gear, filed for bankruptcy earlier this year.
But testimony and court filings in the defamation cases and the bankruptcy proceedings have provided a different picture of the finances.
Testifying in the Texas defamation case earlier this year, a forensic economist said that the combined net worth of Jones and Free Speech Systems could be as high as $270 million. He also testified that Infowars averaged more than $50 million in annual revenue for several years, and that Jones was at one point paying himself $6 million per year.
The timing and the substance of the Free Speech Systems bankruptcy filing has also prompted scrutiny.
Lawyers for Jones' company have said that Free Speech Systems owes $54 million in debt to PQPR Holdings, a company that is also connected to Jones. If the debt to PQPR is valid, that would likely be paid before any Sandy Hook-related judgments.
But the Sandy Hook families have a different view. In an August court filing, the families' lawyers said the PQPR money transfers — at one point in 2021, when the defamation cases were active, as much as $11,000 per day to PQPR — were "fraudulent transfers designed to siphon off" assets that could be affected by judgments.
In September, the bankruptcy court appointed an independent trustee to investigate the claims.
"There has to be some realization on Alex Jones's part, on Free Speech Systems' part, that this is no longer going to be a quick and easy ploy to get rid of the liability on these debts," said Nicholas Koffroth, a Los Angeles-based bankruptcy attorney with the firm Fox Rothschild.
Meanwhile, Alex Jones and Infowars are still doing business. Jones broadcasts often and frequently asks viewers for donations or purchases.
And the company's business has picked up this year. In a court filing in August in the bankruptcy case, lawyers for Free Speech Systems said they had experienced a "surge in sales" and estimated revenue could reach a level of $450,000 per day – far higher than the company had originally estimated when filing for bankruptcy earlier this year.
Will the families actually recover a billion dollars?
It's too soon to say.
"Once a jury decides a verdict, it's never over — because there is an appeals process, and because of the ways in which the defendants may try to evade judgment," said Pandya of the University of Connecticut. "Given the extraordinary amount the jury has awarded and the attention that the jury trial put upon Alex Jones and his conduct, he shouldn't feel so satisfied that he's going to evade any kind of payment."
Jones' promises to drag out the proceedings could give motivation to the plaintiffs to come to "some sort of quicker resolution," said Koffroth, the bankruptcy attorney.
One resolution could be an agreement that Jones make payments over time to the families.
There's a catch: Jones' ability to pay such large sums depends on him continuing his lucrative conspiracy theory business. "If Alex Jones just stops podcasting, the value of Free Speech Systems immediately plummets," Koffroth said.
On the other hand, he said, it's possible the families could find satisfaction in precisely that outcome.
"If Alex Jones decides that continuing to make podcasts is just going to enrich the people he's harmed — or rightfully allow them to recover what they're due — then Alex Jones may very well go off the airwaves," said Koffroth. "And that might just count as a win."
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