Judge slashes damages awarded in deadly Charlotteville rally

Jan 3, 2023, 11:08 PM | Updated: Jan 4, 2023, 1:15 pm

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — A federal judge has slashed millions of dollars from the damages a jury ordered white nationalist leaders and organizations to pay for their role in the violence that erupted during the deadly “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville in 2017.

U.S. District Judge Norman Moon ordered the $24 million in punitive damages reduced to $350,000, the cap imposed under a Virginia law. Moon upheld the $2 million in compensatory damages awarded by the jury in November 2021.

The reduction in damages was expected because of the 1988 state law, which says that juries should not be told about the cap, but if a jury awards more than $350,000 in punitive damages, the judge must reduce the award.

Moon’s ruling also affirmed the jury’s central finding that the defendants — including some of the most well-known white nationalists in the country — were liable under a state conspiracy law for planning and participating in the rally.

The lawsuit was filed by nine people who alleged they were physically injured, emotionally scarred — or both — by the violence that erupted in August 2017, when hundreds of white supremacists traveled to Charlottesville, ostensibly to protest city plans to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

During a march on the University of Virginia campus on Aug. 11, white nationalists chanted “Jews will not replace us,” surrounded counter-protesters and threw tiki torches at them. The following day, James Alex Fields Jr., an avowed Hitler admirer, intentionally drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring many others.

Clashes between the white nationalists and anti-racism protesters prompted authorities to declare the gathering on Aug. 12 an “unlawful assembly” and to order crowds to disperse. It was after that announcement that Fields rammed his car into a group of counter-protesters.

The violence shocked the nation, and a political firestorm erupted after then-President Donald Trump failed to strongly denounce the white nationalists, saying there were “very fine people on both sides.”

Fields is serving life in prison for murder and hate crimes.

The other defendants in the civil case included Jason Kessler, the rally’s main organizer; Richard Spencer, who coined the term “alt-right” to describe a loosely connected band of white nationalists, neo-Nazis and others; and Christopher Cantwell, a white supremacist who became known as the “crying Nazi” for posting a video when a warrant was issued for his arrest on assault charges for using pepper spray against counterdemonstrators.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs argued that Virginia’s punitive-damages cap does not apply in a case involving a conspiracy to commit racial violence. They also argued that even if the cap does apply, it applies only on a “per-plaintiff basis,” meaning that each of the eight plaintiffs who sought punitive damages should receive $350,000. Moon rejected both arguments, writing in his ruling that the plain language of the law makes it clear that the cap applies in all types of lawsuits and to each case as a whole, not to individual plaintiffs.

Attorneys Roberta Kaplan and Karen Dunn said they are “carefully considering” an appeal to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on the punitive damages cap.

In his ruling last week, Moon also upheld the jury’s finding that six of the defendants were liable for “racial, religious, or ethnic harassment or violence.” The judge also affirmed the jury’s finding that Fields was liable for assault and battery and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

“Judge Moon’s lengthy opinion reviewing the mountain of evidence we introduced at trial and affirming the jury verdicts on the culpability of each and every defendant confirms what really happened — motivated by the tenets of white supremacy, defendants engaged in a wide-ranging conspiracy to commit violence in Charlottesville in August 2017,” Kaplan and Dunn said in a statement.

Jonathan Turley, a professor at George Washington University Law School who has been a vocal critic of state caps on damages, said such limitations can blunt the impact of a jury’s verdict.

“It’s relatively rare to have punitive damages — they are reserved for the most egregious cases where they jury feels that the conduct warrants something beyond mere compensatory damages,” Turley said. “The whole point of punitive damages is that the jury does not believe that compensatory damages would deter future conduct. Compensatory damages make the victims whole; punitive damages are designed to deter future conduct.”

Jurors in the civil trial were unable to reach unanimous verdicts on two claims based on a 150-year-old federal law passed after the Civil War to shield freed slaves from violence and protect their civil rights. The Ku Klux Klan Act contains a rarely used provision that allows private citizens to sue other citizens for civil rights violations.

Under those claims, the plaintiffs asked the jury to find that the defendants engaged in a conspiracy to commit racially motivated violence and that they knew about the conspiracy but failed to stop it from being carried out. Jurors deadlocked on those claims.

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