New York (CNN Business) — Right-wing talk show host Alex Jones will have to pay the parents of a Sandy Hook shooting victim just over $4 million in compensatory damages, a jury decided Thursday, capping a surprising and dramatic case that showed public the real-world damage inflicted by viral conspiracy theories.
The plaintiffs, Scarlett Lewis and Neil Heslin, had sought $150 million in compensatory damages when the trial began.
A separate, shorter trial is now expected during which punitive damages will be discussed. Punitive damages are awarded when the court finds the defendant’s behavior to be especially offensive.
The jury’s decision is the partial end of a years-long process that began in 2018 when Lewis and Heslin sued Jones and his company, Free Speech Systems, which is the parent of the right-wing media organization Infowars.
Jones unsubstantiatedly claimed after the Sandy Hook shooting, in which 26 people were killed, that the incident was staged. Facing multiple lawsuits, Jones later acknowledged the shooting occurred. He testified in court this week that he now believed it was “100% real.”
But Jones failed to comply with court orders during the lawsuit discovery process. His failure to do so led to Heslin and Lewis winning default judgments against Jones.
Judge Maya Guerra Gamble ruled in October that Jones was legally responsible for inflicting emotional distress on Heslin and Lewis. Gamble also ruled that Jones was responsible for defaming Heslin.
The decision to punish Jones in such terms also marks a seismic moment in American society, where lies and conspiracy theories have flourished in recent years.
The jury’s decision sends a clear message to those who spread lies in the public conversation, whether for political power or financial gain, that such behavior can have consequences.
“Freedom of expression is free, but lies must be paid for,” the Sandy Hook family’s attorneys argued before the jury during their opening and closing arguments.