The Largest Defamation Verdicts In US History

On Wednesday, October 12, 2022, controversial internet and radio personality Alex Jones was ordered to pay nearly $1 billion to the families of children killed in 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut. Through his InfoWars website and other online channels, Jones spread unfounded conspiracy theories that the school shooting, in which 20 children and six staff members were killed, was a hoax, according to The New York Times. The Jones defamation settlement is among the largest in U.S. history, and the nearly $1 billion Jones was ordered to pay by the Connecticut court was compensatory. As of this report, a ruling on punitive damages was still forthcoming, which means the total Jones will be asked to pay will likely grow even higher, per "PBS NewsHour."

Earlier in the summer, Jones was also ordered to pay $50 million in a Texas court in a separate damages case relating to Sandy Hook. An additional court appearance from Jones on related charges reportedly is set to take place within the year. All told, the Alex Jones defamation verdicts related to Sandy Hook conspiracy theories will likely amount to the most expensive verdicts of their kind in legal history. To provide some context on just how big Jones' verdict truly is, here's a closer look at a few of the largest defamation verdicts prior to the Jones ruling on Wednesday.

Dow Jones & Co. was ordered to pay more than $222 million in a defamation case

In 1997, as reported by The Washington Post, Dow Jones & Co. — a publishing service — was ordered to pay a bit more than $222 million to a bond firm, MMAR, over an article it published that alleged MMAR had engaged in questionable business practices. The article reportedly forced the firm to shut down and at that time, the $222.7 million the jury awarded the bond firm was the largest such verdict in a libel case. Libel is defined as a type of defamation in written words or pictures, according to Cornell Law School.

At that time, a lawyer for MMAR, Kent Hartwell, said (via the Post) that the high-dollar amount of the awarded damages offered "powerful evidence of libel that never should have happened. They published false and defamatory statements. They painted MMAR as being engaged in criminal conduct." Up to that point, the largest libel amount ever awarded was $58 million to a Dallas TV station, WFAA-TV, but the case was later settled for an undisclosed amount, per the Post.

In New Hampshire, a record $274 million was awarded in a defamation case centered on billboards

As New Hampshire Public Radio reported in 2017, a New Hampshire court ordered Michael Gill, who was known to post billboards with wild allegations against well-known local figures alleging drug dealing and murder, to pay $274 million in damages to three defendants targeted by Gill's signs. It was the largest-ever award of its kind in New Hampshire history. At that time, Steve Gordon, the lawyer representing the three plaintiffs in the case, said (via NHPR), "This was actually never a case about money."

The amount awarded, Gordon continued, made clear in "bright, clear and dramatic language ... that these statements were false and malicious." He said that with the case (now) settled, his clients could begin the process of renewal. Despite the hefty penalty he was ordered to pay, Michael Gill reportedly stood by his statements related to the three plaintiffs in the case. In 2017, Gill said he planned to appeal the verdict. "It doesn't matter if it's a $100 million or a billion — all I can tell you is this: Everything that I said is 100 percent true — everything," Gill said (via NHPR).

Oberlin College was ordered to pay an Ohio bakery $33 million

In 2019, student protests broke out at Oberlin College in Ohio over a Black student who had allegedly been racially profiled by a local business, Gibson's Bakery. Per The New York Times, a jury ruled the college sided with the student activists and in doing so, the court found the educational institution had defamed the business. As a result, Oberlin College was ordered to pay $33 million to Gibson's Bakery in recompense, which was the largest such verdict in Ohio history at that time. 

Oberlin claimed they took no sides in the issue, and simply tried to maintain order on campus. The student in question had allegedly attempted to shoplift from Gibson's Bakery; he also reportedly tried to buy alcohol with a fake ID. A physical altercation ensued, and protests broke out on the Oberlin campus (via the Times).

Following the protests, the Oberlin College administration did take steps to cut ties with Gibson's Bakery. The college's dean of students, Meredith Raimondo, also distributed printed material that advocated for a boycott of Gibson's Bakery and alleged Gibson's was a racist establishment, according to The Washington Post.

The Washington Post was sued for $250 million by a teenager, but settled out of court

In 2020, a video went viral online in which then-16-year-old Kentucky teen Nicholas Sandmann (pictured, in 2020) interacted with a Native American elder in what some perceived to be an antagonistic manner. In it, Sandmann stood with others wearing a so-called red "MAGA" hat in a demonstration at the Lincoln memorial. The video appeared to align Sandmann with then-President Trump's controversial policies, per The New York Times. As a result, several news outlets, including The Washington Post and CNN, among others, reported the incident. 

In doing so, those outlets defamed the teen, according to the hundreds of millions of dollars in lawsuits brought against those media organizations once Sandmann turned 18. As the Times reported, Sandmann brought a $250 million lawsuit against the Post but the paper settled out of court, and the amount of the settlement wasn't made public. Sandmann also brought a $275 million lawsuit against CNN but that case, too, was settled out of court. That settlement also remained confidential, according to CNN Business

In total, Sandmann's defamation lawsuits sought $800 million in damages from CNN, the Post, and NBC Universal, per FOX 19 Now. NBC Universal also settled with Sandmann for an undisclosed amount, as reported by The Cincinnati Enquirer in 2021.