Conspiracy theorist Alex Jones filed his long-awaited appeal Friday of the $1.4 billion defamation verdict awarded to relatives of Sandy Hook shooting victims who persuaded a jury last year that his false broadcasts calling the school massacre a hoax caused them to suffer years of abuse.
The appeal, filed by Jones lawyer Norm Pattis with the intermediate state Appellate Court, is sharply critical of trial Judge Barbara Bellis and focuses mostly on her punitive default ruling that found Jones and his Info Wars broadcasts responsible for the abuse — before the case reached the jury — and turned what was to have been a defamation trial into a sensational hearing on damages.
Pattis wrote that the goal of the suits, brought by relatives of shooting victims and an FBI agent who was part of the law enforcement response, was to “silence” or “financially cripple” Jones. He said they almost succeeded because of the default ruling, which he described as part of a “bizarre set of trial Court rulings” that made a “mockery of justice.”
The appeal argues as well that there is no evidentiary basis for the $965 million in compensatory damages that “shocks the sense of justice.” And it claims that the additional $473 million in punitive damages awarded under the state’s unfair business practices law should be thrown out because it wasn’t proven that Jones knowingly broadcast conspiracy theories dangerous to the victims’ families in order to drive internet sales at his nutritional supplement business.
But the bulk of the appeal is directed at the default ruling, a rarely used judicial punishment imposed on Jones for failing to play by rules requiring opposing parties in lawsuits to participate in the reciprocal, pretrial exchange of information, a process called discovery. The relatives complained in the run-up to the trial that Jones abused the process by concealing business records, in particular those showing how Sandy Hook hoax broadcasts affected audience size and sales.
At the heart of the suit by the relatives was the argument that Jones intentionally pushed claims that the school shooting was a hoax carried out by crisis actors because he knew such broadcasts caused his sales figure to spike.
Chris Mattei, the attorney who represented the Sandy Hook families, said Friday, “A careful and conscientious jury heard weeks of evidence before reaching its historic — and fair — verdict.
“One of Connecticut’s most respected trial judges reviewed Mr. Jones’ arguments against the verdict and rejected them,” Mattei said. “The families will persevere in this appeal as they have all along. They will keep fighting to hold Jones fully accountable for his lies, in the hope that their actions will help protect other families in the future.”
Bellis’ default had the effect of finding Jones liable for the harassment the families suffered because, according to the ruling, his broadcasts to an audience of tens of millions inspired the threats.
The appeal argues that Jones was sincere in his attempt to comply with Bellis’ discovery orders. But it asserts he was unable to produce what the relatives wanted largely because there were no such records. The reason, according to the appeal, is because Jones’ businesses, which produced tens of millions of dollars in revenue, were a disorganized mess built around his personality.
“Rather, it was the result of a shocking degree of disorganization,” Pattis wrote. “The plaintiffs persuaded the trial judge that the plaintiffs’ expectations of how the defendants should operate their business and keep records was the standard the defendants must meet.
“The default prevented a jury from learning the truth about the defendants’ corporate organization — it is a haphazard warren of people drawn together by Mr. Jones’s charisma and generosity, but almost altogether devoid of institutional structure or normal corporate Governance.”
Pattis argues that Jones’ effort to comply with discovery should have been apparent in “the fact that he tendered tens of thousands of electronic documents, had members of his staff sit for dozens of depositions and had a series of lawyers run ragged attending a bewildering series of periodic “status” conferences that became the forum for a game of litigation gotcha.”
As it turned out, Pattis said that while Jones was punished for failing to provide materials to the relatives, those relatives were able to use the substantial materials he did provide against him and the default sharply restricted how he could respond in his own defense.
An example raised in the appeal involves an internet tool called Google Analytics, a web product that tracks audience and sales. Because a Jones executive referred to it in a deposition, it was demanded during discovery. Pattis said Jones couldn’t produce such records because he didn’t have them.
“The Court’s inability to comprehend the distinction between intermittently looking at a slice of data created by means of proprietary software on a third-party server and possession of the third-party’s raw data is fatal to its finding of willful failure to comply with discovery,” the appeal says.
“The plaintiffs seized on every stray reference to a deponent’s once having looked at something online as proof that the defendants possessed such data and failed to disclose it,” the appeal says. “The fact is that defendants no more kept such reports on file than do most folks relying on reports generated, kept and maintained on a third-party server. Asking to produce “Google Analytics” was a red-herring in this case.”
It could be months before the appeal is argued.
In the meantime, an appeal is pending on a related issue — Bellis’ attempt to suspend Pattis from the practice of law for six months for what she has described as his “inexcusable” disclosure of thousands of protected medical and psychiatric records obtained as part of trial discovery from relatives of Sandy Hook shooting victims.
Pattis has acknowledged inadvertently providing the records to another Jones lawyer working on a related case in Texas. He said the records were retrieved or destroyed before being further disseminated.
The Appellate Court in February postponed the suspension for as long as it takes for Pattis to challenge it.