All Unite the Right key organizers and participants who were ordered by a jury to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages have filed motions seeking to reduce these sums or be re-tried.
The prolific Sines v. Kessler federal lawsuit that sought to hold organizers and key participants responsible for the August 2017 violence in Charlottesville has stretched past its November end date, prolonging the already yearslong case.
The plaintiffs claimed victory after an 11-person jury found defendants engaged in a conspiracy, as defined by Virginia law, and imposed more than $26 million in financial damages.
However, all the defendants who appeared at trial are seeking either a new trial or reduced damages. They are largely citing the jury’s lack of a verdict on two counts stemming from a more specific federal conspiracy law that alleged racially motivated violence, and a disparity between punitive damages and compensatory damages.
A slew of motions were filed during the second week of March as a post-trial deadline loomed, forcing defendants to file arguments or waive many of their appeal options. Among the defendants who filed motions recently are: Richard Spencer, Matthew Parrott, Matthew Heimbach, Traditionalist Worker Party, League of the South, Michael Hill, Michael Tubbs and James Alex Fields Jr..
Fields was convicted in 2019 of first-degree murder of 32-year-old Heather Heyer when he ran his car into a crowd after the rally ended. He was also found guilty of eight counts of malicious wounding, and hit and run.
He was sentenced to life in prison plus an additional 419 years and pleaded guilty to 29 federal hate crime charges in 2019, receiving a second life sentence.
Defendants Jeff Schoep, the National Socialist Movement, Chris Cantwell, Jason Kessler, Nathan Damigo and Identity Evropa had already filed motions to reconsider.
Though varying in their arguments, the bulk of the defense motions argue that the punitive damages awarded by the jury are too high and should be reduced.
Josh Smith, attorney for Heimbach, Parrott and the League, argued that, in his interpretation of Virginia state code, a jury cannot impose punitive damages exceeding a total of $350,000. Smith argues that should reduce the approximately $24 million in punitive damages to $350,000, meaning Heimbach and Parrott need only pay $7,291.67 and TWP need only pay $14,583.33.
Smith also urges the court to take into account his clients’ inability to pay the punitive damages, arguing that they are “working-class men with families.”
“[Heimbach], who has no assets and is presently unemployed, is the sole caregiver for his two children; [Parrott], a truck driver, just became a father to twins after his wife’s medically intensive high-risk pregnancy and premature delivery,” Smith wrote. “$500,000 might as well read ‘infinity dollars’ to them.”
A motion filed on behalf of Fields also argues for a $350,000 cap on punitive damages, as permitted by state code.
A motion on behalf of Tubbs, Hill and the League of the South employs similar “nominal damage” arguments as Smith’s. Nominal damages are awarded when the plaintiff is legally in the right, but has not suffered substantial losses.
On the state conspiracy count which the jury found the defendants met, the League of the South’s attorney argues that the punitive damages were not proportional to the nominal damages intended to compensate the plaintiffs.
“The jury awarded $1 in nominal damages to each of the plaintiffs, except two plaintiffs were awarded $0,” attorney Bryan Jones wrote. “But the jury awarded the plaintiffs $350,000 in punitive damages against Michael Tubbs and Michael Hill and $1,000,000 in punitive damages against the League of the South. The ratio between the nominal damages awarded the Plaintiffs and the punitive damages is not reasonable.”
Spencer, who is representing himself, filed a motion arguing that the jury verdict is “logically incoherent and inconsistent, making applications of laws unconstitutional” and that he is owed a new trial and/or “strongly reduced” punitive damages.
Much of Spencer’s motion is dedicated to rehashing arguments he made in trial that he was less involved with the organization of the rally and preceding torch march on the University of Virginia grounds, even going so far as to include transcripts.
Spencer made similar arguments while representing himself during the trial and, based on the verdict, does not appear to have persuaded the jury.
“Taking into account the oversized punitive damages, it is apparent that the jury dislikes very much the UTR rally and does not want something like that to occur again. But the Court is left to guess at what statutes Mr. Spencer violated,” Spencer wrote. “Holding Mr. Spencer accountable in this way is to violate his due process. At the very least, a new trial is in order.”
According to a post-trial scheduling order, counsel for the plaintiffs has until April 6 to file opposition memoranda. According to the timeline, it appears unlikely that the federal court will rule on any of the post-trial motions until May, at the earliest.
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