Alex Jones Isn’t Going To Pay $45.2 Million in Damages
You’ll always find a wide variety of opinions here at The Bulwark, but one issue where there’s near-uniformity is the shared belief that Alex Jones should be strapped to a Falcon Heavy rocket and yeeted directly into the sun at the first opportunity.
Unfortunately, we live in the darkest possible timeline and don’t get to have nice things. So instead we have to settle for the schadenfreude of watching the conclusion of the first of several lawsuits that have been filed against Jones for defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED) by the parents of children killed in the Sandy Hook school massacre.
The repeated legal misconduct by Jones and his attorney during the trial sapped some of the intrigue; the judge in Austin ruled last year that Jones should lose by default for repeatedly withholding evidence that court rules require to be shared between the litigants. The trial on damages ended last week, with a jury finding Jones should pay $4.1 million in compensatory damages to two parents, followed by a separate award of punitive damages (called “exemplary” damages in Texas) in the amount of $45.2 million.
Maybe this sounds low to you, based on what a pile of human garbage Jones is. But the truth is actually worse. Jones will never pay that $45.2 million. Because of tort reform caps, those punitive damages are going to get pared back to a meager $750,000.
To understand how that will play out, you need to understand the laws that govern these sorts of proceedings in Texas.
The Texas Rules of Civil Procedure (“TRCP”) is an 822-rule list created by the Supreme Court of Texas as part of its rule-making powers under Article 5 §31 of the Texas Constitution. The Rules of Civil Procedure govern the mechanics of civil lawsuits, including things like Rule 45 on what to call the lawsuit (a “petition”) and Rule 292 on how many jurors must agree to issue a verdict on compensatory damages (10 of 12) or exemplary damages (all 12 of 12).
The Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code (“TCPRC”) is separate: It’s a set of statutes, enacted by the Texas Legislature, providing the substantive law and boundaries on a variety of court-related issues, including Chapter 41 on damages.
For Alex Jones, the key language of the TCPRC for his case is Section 41.008, the exemplary damages cap:
Sec. 41.008. LIMITATION ON AMOUNT OF RECOVERY.
(a) In an action in which a claimant seeks recovery of damages, the trier of fact shall determine the amount of economic damages separately from the amount of other compensatory damages.
(b) Exemplary damages awarded against a defendant may not exceed an amount equal to the greater of:
(1)(A) two times the amount of economic damages; plus
(B) an amount equal to any noneconomic damages found by the jury, not to exceed $750,000; or
This is a fairly simple formula. The lowest ceiling is $200,000; the highest ceiling is the sum of noneconomic damages (up to $750,000) plus twice the economic damages.
But which damages are “economic” versus “noneconomic”? Those, too, are defined in Chapter 41:
Sec. 41.001. DEFINITIONS.
In this chapter:
… (4) “Economic damages” means compensatory damages intended to compensate a claimant for actual economic or pecuniary loss; the term does not include exemplary damages or noneconomic damages.
… (12) “Noneconomic damages” means damages awarded for the purpose of compensating a claimant for physical pain and suffering, mental or emotional pain or anguish, loss of consortium, disfigurement, physical impairment, loss of companionship and society, inconvenience, loss of enjoyment of life, injury to reputation, and all other nonpecuniary losses of any kind other than exemplary damages.
The first jury award, the $4.1 million in compensatory damages, was entirely for injury to reputation and mental anguish. Those get classified as noneconomic damages under §41.001(12). The jury did not find any economic damages at all, $0.
So plugging in the numbers to the exemplary damages cap formula, the end result is
[$750,000 in noneconomic damages] + [2 x $0 in economic damages] = $750,000.
There are some limited exceptions to the exemplary damages cap, colloquially called “cap busters.” These are found in Sections 41.008(c) and (f)—but unfortunately only relate to damages from criminally felonious conduct such as murder, injuring children or the elderly, or cooking meth.
Now at this point you might be wondering “why would the jury issue a verdict so large if they knew it was going to be reduced?” The answer is: The jury does not know about the damages cap until after the trial, because the statute forbids telling them.
Section 41.008(e) provides:
(e) The provisions of this section may not be made known to a jury by any means, including voir dire, introduction into evidence, argument, or instruction.
The idea here is that the jury should suss out the “true” damages on its own first; because if they were informed ahead of time about a cap on exemplary damages, they might artificially increase the compensatory damages awarded to make up for it. So instead we get large exemplary damage awards, and the headlines that come with them—only for the trial judge to reduce the damages to the cap amount before officially entering the judgment.
There is some mystery about whether the final cap amount will be more than $750,000 in Jones’s case:
- Jones’s lawyer has told the media that the damages cap is per-plaintiff, putting the total at $1.5 million ($750,000 x 2 plaintiffs);
- The family’s lawyer says the cap is both per-plaintiff and per-claim, putting the total at $4.5 million ($750,000 x 2 plaintiffs x 3 claims);
- But the Texas Supreme Court has held that the cap is instead per-defendant per-lawsuit (Horizon Health Corp. v. Acadia Healthcare Co., 520 S.W.3d 848, 877-81 (Tex. 2017)), a minimalist approach also taken by one of Texas’s regional Courts of Appeal (Seminole Pl. v. Broad Leaf, 979 S.W.2d 730, 751-52 (Tex. App. (Houston) 1998));
- And Jones has put one of his various shell companies into bankruptcy to try and avoid paying anything at all, regardless of the eventual cap amount.
No matter which approach the trial judge ultimately takes—my guess is they go with how the Texas Supreme Court viewed it, unless Jones’s lawyer concedes to a higher amount—the end result will be a dramatic markdown from the jury’s verdicts last week, and a sharp disappointment for those hoping that the proceedings would “send a message” to Jones and people like him.
This is not a uniquely Texan travesty; caps on punitive damages are incredibly popular. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1996 that “grossly excessive” punitive damage awards violate the due process clause of the Constitution (BMW of North America, Inc. v. Gore). As of 2020, some form of punitive damages cap exists via statute in 27 states, with court-issued caps in 2 others—including in Connecticut, where another of the lawsuits against Jones is pending.
These caps exist in coastal states and in flyover country, in places dominated by Republicans and by Democrats. Most of these damage limits were put in place throughout the 1980s and 1990s when “tort reform” was a salient political issue and “trial lawyer” was used as an epithet to explain why healthcare costs were so high.
The argument was that the caps were needed to protect the “good guys” from wily attorneys out to make a quick buck. But the end effect is that the bad guys get protected too. Including people like Alex Jones, who is likely to raise more money off the verdicts against him than he’ll pay out to victims.
Accountability rarely happens in a courthouse. The only real way to hold Jones accountable is to convince his listeners or his advertisers (or both) that he’s a charlatan who doesn’t deserve their money.
But first we have to acknowledge the reality that Jones is exactly what many Americans want.