Court orders white nationalists to pay $2M more for Charlottesville Unite the Right violence

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Four years after violence erupted during the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, a jury ordered white nationalist leaders and organizations to pay a total of more than $26 million in damages to people with physical or emotional injuries from the event.

Most of that money — $24 million — was for punitive damages, but a judge later slashed that amount to $350,000 — to be shared by eight plaintiffs. On Monday, a federal appeals court restored more than $2 million in punitive damages, finding that each of the plaintiffs should receive $350,000, instead of the $43,750 each would have received under the lower court’s ruling.

A three-judge panel of the Richmond-based 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the jury's award of $2 million in compensatory damages, but found that a state law that imposes the $350,000 cap on punitive damages should be applied per person instead of for all eight plaintiffs, as a lower court judge ruled.

The ruling stems from a federal lawsuit against two dozen white nationalists and organizations that participated in two days of demonstrations in Charlottesville to protest the city's plan to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

On the second day, after the “Unite the Right” rally had been declared an unlawful assembly, James Alex Fields Jr., a white supremacist from Maumee, Ohio, intentionally drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing one woman and injuring dozens more. Fields, who was one of the defendants in the civil case, is now serving a life sentence for murder and hate crimes.

The 4th Circuit panel rejected a request from the defendants that the court ask the Supreme Court of Virginia to rule on the question of whether each plaintiff can receive $350,000 in punitive damages, saying in its ruling that it found the state law's language and history “clear enough to predict how Virginia's high court would rule.”

“Over two years ago, the jury used its $24 million punitive damages award to send an unmistakable message to the defendants and to the public about the outrageous misconduct that took place in Charlottesville, Virginia. While the law compels us to reduce the award, it’s long past time for that message to be delivered,” Chief Judge Albert Diaz wrote in the 3-0 ruling.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs said they were pleased by the court's ruling.

“Today's decision restores over $2 million in punitive damages from the jury's verdict, which sent a clear message against racist and antisemitic hate and violence,” attorneys Roberta Kaplan, David E. Mills and Gabrielle E. Tenzer said in a statement.

Lawyers for the defendants did not immediately respond to emails seeking comment.

The verdict from the 2021 trial was a rebuke to the white nationalist movement, particularly for the two dozen individuals and organizations accused in a federal lawsuit of orchestrating violence against African Americans, Jewish people and others in a meticulously planned conspiracy.