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Connecticut punitive damages law could limit what Sandy Hook plaintiffs get from Alex Jones

Chris Mattei an attorney for a first responder and families of Sandy Hook victims suing Alex Jones in Connecticut testifies at Waterbury Superior Court Norm Pattis disciplinary proceedings in Waterbury, Connecticut August 17, 2022.
Joe Amon
/
Connecticut Public
Chris Mattei. an attorney for a first responder and families of Sandy Hook victims who are suing Alex Jones in Connecticut, testifies at during attorney Norm Pattis' disciplinary proceedings in Waterbury Superior Court, Aug.17, 2022.

A cap on punitive damages looms over the Sandy Hook defamation trial in Waterbury Superior Court that’s set to begin on Sept. 13.

Infowars host Alex Jones was sued in Connecticut by a first responder and families of Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting victims after he repeatedly said the massacre was a hoax. He lost the defamation case by default last November, so jurors in the trial are only deciding how much he must pay the plaintiffs for claims that they were “profoundly harmed” by Jones.

Jurors will deliberate on two types of damages in the upcoming trial – actual damages and punitive damages. But Connecticut law caps punitive damages at attorneys’ fees and costs associated with litigation.

“It’s the strictest, as far as I’m aware, of rules on punitive damages in the country,” said Bill Dunlap, a Quinnipiac University law professor.

Connecticut’s cap is stricter than that of Texas, where the parents of Sandy Hook shooting victim Jesse Lewis were recently awarded $4.1 million for compensatory damages and $45.2 million for punitive damages in their lawsuit against Jones.

Ronen Avraham, a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin, says Texas tightened its cap on punitive damages in 1995.

“This is actually not unusual,” Avraham said. “About half of the states in the United States have caps on punitive damages, and the reason is that legislators wanted to just make sure juries are not running out of control.”

In Texas, punitive damages can be up to twice the amount of economic compensatory damages. But the $4.1 million compensatory award for the parents of Jesse Lewis wasn’t for economic damages.

Alex Jones attempts to answer questions about his text messages asked by Mark Bankston, lawyer for Neil Heslin and Scarlett Lewis, during trial at the Travis County Courthouse in Austin, Wednesday Aug. 3, 2022. Jones testified Wednesday that he now understands it was irresponsible of him to declare the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre a hoax and that he now believes it was “100% real." (Briana Sanchez/Austin American-Statesman via AP, Pool)
Briana Sanchez/AP
/
Pool Austin American-Statesman
Alex Jones attempts to answer questions about his text messages asked by Mark Bankston, lawyer for Neil Heslin and Scarlett Lewis, during the trial at the Travis County Courthouse in Austin, Texas, on Aug. 3, 2022. Jones testified that he now understands it was irresponsible of him to declare the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre a hoax and that he now believes it was "100% real."

“Because there were no economic damages in the original $4.1 million verdict, we can’t multiply it by two,” said Holly Davis, founder of the Austin, Texas-based law firm Kirker Davis LLP.

So, despite a $45 million award for punitive damages, Davis says the Texas restrictions likely mean Lewis’ parents, Neil Heslin and Scarlett Lewis, will get no more than $750,000 in punitive damages, plus the $4.1 million in compensatory damages.

The judge in the Texas case has yet to approve the final amount. After that, the damage awards can be appealed.

As for the Connecticut case, there may be relief for the plaintiffs suing Alex Jones for defamation because they’ve alleged in their lawsuit that Jones’ conduct violated Connecticut’s Unfair Trade Practices Act.

According to University of Connecticut law professor Sachin S. Pandya, damages claims under the Unfair Trade Practices Act “are not limited to the expenses of bringing the legal action.”

This story has been updated. A previous version included a misspelling of Bill Dunlap's name.

Frankie Graziano is the host of The Wheelhouse, focusing on how local and national politics impact the people of Connecticut.
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