Access to Public Information, Content Moderation, Content Regulation / Censorship, Intermediary Liability, Integrity And Authenticity, Misinformation
Café Weltschmertz v. YouTube (Google)
Closed Mixed Outcome
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The Connecticut Superior Court awarded sum of $10 million in punitive damages to each of the fifteen plaintiffs. The plaintiffs, in this case, were either a parent of a student or a close relative of a school employee who died in the Sandy Hook school shooting incident that occurred on December 13, 2012. The plaintiffs filed a suit against Mr. Alex Emric Jones, a radio and internet personality, for alleging that the Sandy Hook shooting was a hoax on his radio show and Infowars.com website, among others. The plaintiffs asserted that Jones had developed a “very lucrative business model” pedaling “conspiracy-minded falsehoods like those about Sandy Hook” for immense monetary gain. The court ruled that the actions of the defendants were motivated by profit and “their conduct was intentional, malicious, and certain to cause harm by virtue of their infrastructure, ability to spread content, and massive audience.”
The present case analysis deals with three consolidated cases. David Wheeler, Francine Wheeler, Jacqueline Barden, Mike Barden, Nicole Hockley, Ian Hockley, Jennifer Hensel, Donna Soto, Carlee Soto-Parisi, Carlos M. Soto, and Jillian Soto (the plaintiffs) are either a parent of a student or a close relative of a school employee who died in the Sandy Hook school shooting incident that occurred on December 14, 2012 [p. 1]. Erica Lafferty, the original plaintiff, was substituted by her bankruptcy trustee Richard Coan on October 20, 2021. William Aldenberg, another plaintiff in the instant case, was the first responder who responded to the scene on the first date of the shooting. The two other plaintiffs include – William Sherlach (spouse of the school psychologist) and Robert Parker (parent of a student who was murdered by Adam Lanza during the Sandy Hook incident. The plaintiffs filed a suit against Mr. Alex Emric Jones, a radio and Internet personality, and host of the ‘The Alex Jones Show’, and Free Speech Systems LLC (the defendants).
The plaintiffs alleged that following the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting, “Jones and the rest of the Jones defendants acted together to develop, disseminate and propagate statements” regarding the incident. According to the plaintiffs, Jones made these comments even though he “does not in fact believe that the Sandy Hook [s]hooting was a hoax-and he never has.” The plaintiffs asserted that Jones had developed a “very lucrative business model” pedaling “conspiracy-minded falsehoods like those about Sandy Hook” for immense monetary gain [p. 3-4].
In fact, by May, 2013, the defendant was alleged to have made approximately $10 million annually. Specifically, the defendant began telling his audience that the Sandy Hook shooting was government-sponsored hoax designed to lead to gun control. In furtherance of this objective, the defendant began making comments questioning the veracity of the Sandy Hook shootings and the sincerity of the reactions of some of the plaintiffs [p. 5].
The plaintiffs alleged the following causes of action against the defendants: (1) count one-invasion of privacy by false light; (2) count two-defamation and defamation per se; (3) count three-intentional infliction of emotional distress; (4) count four-negligent infliction of emotional distress and (5) count five-violations of the Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices Act (CUTPA), General Statutes § 42-110a et seg [p. 7]. On October 12, 2022, the jury awarded damages to the different plaintiffs [p. 8-9]. Following the jury’s verdict, the plaintiffs filed a brief regarding CUPTA punitive damages.
Judge Bellis of the Connecticut Superior Court delivered this judgement. The main issue for consideration before the court was the quantum of damages to be given to the plaintiffs for the defendant’s conduct.
While considering whether the defendants’ conduct was reckless, intentional, or malicious to evaluate the damages, the court ruled that the “defendants’ conduct was intentional, malicious, and certain to cause harm by virtue of their infrastructure, ability to spread content, and massive audience”. The court further observed that the “defendants repeated the conduct and attacks plaintiffs for nearly a decade, including during the trial, wanton, malicious, and heinous conduct that caused harm to the plaintiffs”. According to the court, this “depravity and cruel, persistent conduct” by the defendants indicated “highest degree of reprehensibility and blameworthiness” [p. 44].
In assessing whether the defendants actions were taken in order to make profits, the court ruled that there was sufficient information that the defendants conduct was motivated by profit by virtue of the evidence including the text messages regarding daily sales figures, the business model used by the defendants emulating Sandy Hook content to reap more profit, expert testimony that the Sandy Hook incident drove up sales and profit of the defendant, and the spike in sales revenue following the article “FBI says no one killed at Sandy Hook” and the use of the plaintiffs even during the trial to make money [p. 41].
After considering all the factors, the court awarded the sum of $10 million in CUPTA punitive damages to each of the fifteen plaintiffs [p. 44]. To conclude, the court awarded common law punitive damages for attorneys fees in the total amount of $321,650,000.00 and costs in the total amount of $1,489,555.95 and awards CUTPA punitive damages in the amount of $150,000,000.00 [p. 45].
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
While the decision contracts expression by holding the owner and operator of media businesses with millions of followers liable for considerable damages, it did so in recognition of the harm caused by the spreading of known falsehoods and misinformation through a large communications infrastructure for profit by the defendants.
Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.
Case significance refers to how influential the case is and how its significance changes over time.
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