Alex Jones’ lawyer and the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad week

Andino Reynal, lawyer for Alex Jones attends closing arguments, at the Travis County Courthouse in Austin, Texas, U.S. August 5, 2022. Jurors were asked to assess punitive damages against InfoWars host Alex Jones after awarding $4.1 million in actual damages to the parents of Jesse Lewis. Briana Sanchez/Pool via REUTERS

(Reuters) - However bad your past week might have been, here’s some consolation: Federico Andino Reynal’s was probably worse.

As counsel to conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, the Houston-based Reynal suffered a much-publicized defeat at trial when a jury in Austin, Texas, found his client liable for almost $50 million in damages. The Infowars founder was sued for defamation by the parents of a child slain in the 2012 Sandy Hook mass shooting for claiming the massacre by Adam Lanza of 20 6-and-7-year-olds and six adults was a hoax.

Reynal did not respond to a phone message seeking comment but told my Reuters colleague Jacqueline Thomsen on Friday that his focus "was always on the jury and on putting the best case forward for Alex."

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Lawyers lose trials all the time, of course. Not even Perry Mason won every case. And indeed, considering the plaintiffs asked for $150 million, the outcome for Jones and his lawyers could have been even grimmer than it was.

What made the loss appear especially stinging though was what Jones himself on the stand termed “a Perry Mason moment”: When plaintiff’s lawyer Mark Bankston during cross-examination dropped a bombshell. Your lawyers, he told Jones, "messed up and sent me an entire digital copy of your entire cell phone.”

Gulp.

Reynal in court later acknowledged that the material had been sent “in error.”

The records undercut Jones' testimony that he didn't have any texts about Sandy Hook, Bankston said.

Did that specific revelation have much impact on the jurors’ decision to grant $45.2 million in punitive damages on top of a $4.1 million compensatory award? I suspect the answer is no.

Nonetheless, it triggered an outbreak of schadenfreude on social media and beyond that, was almost unseemly.

The New Yorker’s Andy Borowitz, for example, satirically wrote that “the Department of Justice has ‘strongly urged’ Donald J. Trump to retain Alex Jones’s legal team.” Quoting a mock letter from Attorney General Merrick Garland, he wrote that “We at the Justice Department can think of no one better to represent you than Alex Jones’s lawyers.”

The Daily Show host Trevor Noah asked, “Where did (Jones) get that lawyer?”

As the audience laughed, Noah continued, “I would love to be there for the classic lawyer-client conversation during recess.” Envisioning the mock exchange, Noah said, “’How do you think it’s going?’ ‘Well, apart from the fact that I screwed this up worse than any lawyer in history, I think we still have a good shot.’”

In fairness, Reynal’s alleged mistake is not uncommon. Plenty of lawyers have turned over material by accident – nor is doing so necessarily malpractice.

A viable malpractice claim requires four elements, Seton Hall University School of Law professor Michael Ambrosio, who specializes in professional responsibility and legal ethics, told me.

In Jones’ case, he said, the first two questions are an easy yes: Is there any attorney-client relationship and did that relationship create a duty of care that was breached?

The answer is less clear when it comes to the other two elements: whether the lawyer's misstep was the “proximate cause" of harm to the client, and whether that harm resulted in damages, he said, adding that there has to be “a nexus between the breach (of the duty of care) and the damages.”

Reynal “made a mistake,” Ambrosio said. “That’s not necessarily the basis for liability.”

As part of pretrial discovery, the plaintiffs had asked Jones to turn over any text messages in which he discussed Sandy Hook. Shortly before the trial began, Reynal's law office sent not this narrow set of messages but a copy of Jones' entire cell phone.

These are “communications that Jones should have produced a year earlier," said ethics expert Bruce Green, a professor at Fordham University School of Law. "He can't complain that he was harmed by the lawyers' negligence in producing communications that he wrongly withheld.”

Still, this was no ordinary discovery snafu. Bankston in court said that when he alerted opposing counsel of the trove of information they’d handed over, they “did not take any steps to identify it as privileged or protected in any way.” As a result, he told Jones on cross, it “fell free and clear into my possession.”

If Jones' flustered reaction was any indication, Reynal also failed to prepare his client to explain why he'd previously said under oath that he'd searched his phone and had no text messages about Sandy Hook.

In asking Judge Maya Guerra Gamble on Aug. 4 to declare a mistrial, Reynal said, “We have a situation here which is akin to me mistakenly giving him the key to a room, and he opens the door to the room and instead of finding what he expected to find, he sees other doors.”

The judge denied the mistrial request.

Jones, who did not respond to a request for comment via Infowars' media contact page, called the case in his webcast on Saturday “the show trial of the century that would make the Nazis blush” and “a real attempt to get rid of the First Amendment.”

For Reynal, who previously worked as an assistant U.S. attorney in the Southern District of Texas, the consequences of the cell phone leak could extend beyond the Texas trial loss.

A judge in Connecticut overseeing another Sandy Hook defamation case against Jones ordered Reynal and another of Jones’ lawyers to appear later this month for hearings to consider sanctions or other discipline over their "purported" unauthorized release of Sandy Hook plaintiffs’ medical records.

Jones’ cellphone data is also of interest to the inquiry by a U.S. House of Representatives committee into the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol. Bankston said in court that the committee asked him to hand over the text records he received.

Which means it's unlikely we’ve heard the last about the contents of Alex Jones’ cellphone.

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Jenna Greene writes about legal business and culture, taking a broad look at trends in the profession, faces behind the cases, and quirky courtroom dramas. A longtime chronicler of the legal industry and high-profile litigation, she lives in Northern California. Reach Greene at jenna.greene@thomsonreuters.com