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Alex Jones shouldn't be too confident he can escape paying Sandy Hook families, UConn professor says

Plaintiff's attorney Chris Mattei, left, questions Infowars founder Alex Jones during testimony at the Alex Jones Sandy Hook defamation damages trial at Connecticut Superior Court in Waterbury, Conn. Thursday, Sept. 22, 2022.
Tyler Sizemore/Hearst Connecticut Media
Plaintiffs' attorney Chris Mattei (left) questions Infowars founder Alex Jones during testimony in Jones' Sandy Hook defamation damages trial at Superior Court in Waterbury, Conn., Thursday, Sept. 22, 2022.

A nearly $1 billion judgment Wednesday against conspiracy theory talk show host Alex Jones for his lies about the 2012 Newtown elementary school shooting has spurred questions.

How much of that money will the families and the FBI officer who sued Jones actually see? Can Jones use bankruptcy to avoid paying the full amount? Is the verdict a blow to free speech, as Jones and his supporters suggest?

To answer these and other questions related to the verdict at Superior Court in Waterbury, University of Connecticut law professor Sachin Pandya joined Connecticut Public's "All Things Considered."

Interview highlights

How likely is it that the families who won this judgment will actually get this money?

Pandya: Part of the obstacles here are No. 1, there's going to be additional litigation, including perhaps litigation to increase that amount because the jury authorized payment in the amount of attorneys' fees. And so that has to be developed, as well as the possibility that the trial judge may impose additional punitive damages under the Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices Act claim. The second is that I fully expect the defendants' lawyers are going to appeal, and that will take some time as well. And third, I think Alex Jones has already said that he's going to try and evade paying any portion of this by mechanisms such as declaring bankruptcy or otherwise trying to avoid payment.

How successful will bankruptcy be, and how successful could anything be from protecting Jones from what appears to be coming?

Pandya: I don't think Alex Jones should be too confident that he'll escape payment through bankruptcy court because federal bankruptcy court has an explicit exception, which governs debts arising out of willful and malicious injury. The claims here weren't claims that he accidentally injured these plaintiffs. The claims here was that he deliberately caused them emotional distress, defamed them and many other kinds of intentional acts. And I think that's going to make it more difficult for him to use the federal bankruptcy process to evade payment of this verdict.

Alex Jones has been sued in both Texas and Connecticut. I understand that there's some sort of cap on judgments in Texas, whereas the cap may not exist in the same way here in Connecticut. What can you tell us about that?

Pandya: Unlike other states, Connecticut doesn't have a statute which sets a maximum that a jury can award for compensatory damages. Other states often have that both for certain kinds of damages, such as emotional distress damages, or in some cases for the entire amount that you can be awarded against your damages. Connecticut, however, does treat punitive damages very differently from most of the states. In Connecticut, if the jury believes that the defendant deserves punitive damages -- deserves to be punished -- in a way proportional to the moral blameworthiness, Connecticut says that if it's a common law claim, all you are entitled to is reasonable attorneys’ fees.

Is it a fait accompli that Jones’ Infowars show is dead? Is it a fait accompli that every paycheck he gets will be garnished?

Pandya: I wouldn't say that anything is a fait accompli. That being said, this [week’s verdict] is an incredibly significant event. Because a jury award of this size, even if it is ultimately reduced on appeal, is still significant enough to put a lot of financial pressure on Jones and on his businesses. And for that matter, anybody who wants to do business with Alex Jones, but understand that they may not get paid, because Alex Jones has such a large debt hanging over him.

Alex Jones and his supporters have repeatedly stated that this gargantuan judgment is a blow to free speech. Is there any truth to that argument?

Pandya: The short answer is no. This case isn't about the First Amendment. This case is about, among other things, defamation, and intentional infliction of emotional distress, and other kinds of wrongs that sit side by side with the First Amendment. The First Amendment protects you from government interference with your speech or expressive activity. It does not give you a license to act with actual malice, to publish falsehoods about other people that you know to be false. The jury here was provided ample evidence consistent with Alex Jones' deliberate efforts to defame the families.

Interview highlights have been edited for clarity.

John Henry Smith is Connecticut Public’s host of All Things Considered, its flagship afternoon news program. In his 20th year as a professional broadcaster, he’s covered both news and sports.