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Judge trims Sines v. Kessler punitive award from $24 million to $350K

A federal judge has wiped out most of the financial award in Sines v. Kessler, the sprawling civil trial against white nationalists who rioted in Charlottesville in 2017.

A jury’s $24 million punitive award rendered one year ago has been cut nearly 99 percent by Judge Norman K. Moon in a Dec. 30 order.

“It’s a substantial reduction,” says University of Richmond law professor Carl Tobias. “He must have felt like his hands were tied by the Virginia punitive damages statue.”

In 1988, the Virginia General Assembly passed a law capping punitive damages at $350,000 per case and mandating that juries should not be told of the cap.

While Moon trimmed the punitive damages to $350,000, he left in place $2 million in compensatory awards and turned away defense motions to set aside the verdict.

“It’s not a huge surprise,” says plaintiff April Muñiz. “It’s certainly a relief not to have those motions hanging over us.”

Muñiz was one of nine injured or traumatized people who sued 14 individuals and 10 organizations under conspiracy statutes.

In post-trial motions, defendants variously asserted that jurors rushed to render the verdict in advance of an impending Thanksgiving holiday, that there was no direct evidence of conspiracy, and that free speech should absolve them. One defendant, Christopher Cantwell, imprisoned in a separate case and representing himself, alleged that he did not have sufficient access to trial materials. The judge disagreed and reaffirmed most of what the jury decided on Nov. 23, 2021.

“Plaintiffs,” Moon wrote, “introduced substantial evidence that defendants sought violence, planned for violence, sparked violence, engaged in violence, and afterwards, glorified the violence.”

Trial evidence showed lead defendant and rally organizer Jason Kessler texting about “cracking skulls,” something the defense attempted to downplay at trial as a defensive measure when attacked by antifa, their left-wing antagonists on Aug. 12, 2017.

Any left-wing violence was greatly overshadowed that day by a deliberate car attack perpetrated by a young Ohio man named James Alex Fields Jr. He is now serving what amounts to several life sentences for murder, malicious wounding, and federal hate crimes for plowing his car into dozens of people who were peacefully walking up Fourth Street Southeast. A woman named Heather Heyer died there from her injuries.

The plaintiffs’ lawyers, New York-based Karen Dunn and Roberta Kaplan, compiled all their evidence into a publicly-searchable database they hope will serve as a beacon for future generations. They assert that the notorious Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol began, in a way, on the streets of Charlottesville in 2017.

“Such behavior, which has only increased in intensity since then,” read a statement they issued Monday, “presents a clear and present danger to the health of our democracy.”

Lawsuit watchers, such as Slate magazine courts scribe and former Charlottesvillian Dahlia Lithwick, have long maintained that the litigation was designed to dismantle groups that promote white supremacy.

“This lawsuit,” wrote Lithwick, “was a template for how to hold violent white racism to account without giving it a platform.”

It certainly harmed several racists.

Defendant Richard Spencer, who has called for a white “ethnostate” and who popularized the term “alt-right,” branded the lawsuit “lawfare” and complained that it was “financially crippling.” He represented himself at trial.

Two others, Andrew Anglin and Robert “Azzmador” Ray, who ran an overtly anti-Semitic website called the Daily Stormer, chose to become fugitives rather than participate in the case. Another defendant, Matthew Parrott, tweeted that the lawsuit destroyed his Traditionalist Worker Party and bankrupted him.

“We got outgunned,” says Kessler. “They made the process the punishment.”

Kessler asserts that the tens of millions of dollars raised by the group funding the legal fight against him might have been more effective if handed directly to the plaintiffs.

“If I started a burger stand and spent $30 million but only made two million, it would not be a successful burger stand,” said Kessler.

Its mission accomplished, the lawsuit-backing, non-profit group called Integrity First for America has recently disbanded, and former spokesperson Amy Spitalnick says it spent “far less” than the $30 million figure. However, the organization’s required disclosure forms for 2020 and 2021 were not available at the Internal Revenue Service website, and she declined to specify a more accurate number.

“The plaintiffs were less concerned about the money than about punishing the defendants and sending a message,” said the legal scholar Tobias.

Although Judge Moon claimed that Virginia law was unambiguous in stating its $350,000 punitive cap, Tobias notes that the statute came at the behest of well-meaning doctors and hospitals who make mistakes while trying to help patients.

“It was really aimed at medical malpractice,” says Tobias.

“We are carefully considering an appeal to the Fourth Circuit regarding the impact of the Virginia statutory cap on punitive damages in this case,” plaintiffs’ lawyers Kaplan and Dunn said in their release. And Tobias said he thinks that they should appeal.

“There’s a valid argument to be made that this was heinous behavior, violating the civil rights of the plaintiffs, and that’s not what the General Assembly had in mind.”

Source: www.dailyprogress.com

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