Plaintiffs Win $25M in Damages in ‘Unite the Right’ Case

The organizers behind the civil suit had hoped to bankrupt the white nationalists and neo-Nazis behind the violence in Charlottesville.
White supremacists form a shield wall at the edge of Lee park on 12 August 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia.
White supremacists form a shield wall at the edge of Lee park on 12 August 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia. (Photo by Shay Horse / NurPhoto via Getty Images) 

The organizers of the violent "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, where neo-Nazis and white supremacists fought with protesters and killed one woman by hitting her with a car, were found liable for the damages Tuesday and ordered to pay $25 million to plaintiffs who sued them in court.

Jurors found that defendants in the federal civil trial violated a Virginia civil conspiracy law during the deadly August 2017 gathering, but were otherwise deadlocked on two key federal conspiracy charges. 

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Now, white supremacist leaders like Richard Spencer, Jason Kessler, and Christopher Cantwell—otherwise known as the “crying Nazi”—will have to pay $500,000 in damages, along with several other defendants.  

Kessler, a lead organizer of the rally who described Heather Heyer’s death as “payback” on Twitter, was accused during the trial of describing the rally as the “Battle of Charlottesville,” according to BuzzFeed News. A plaintiffs’ attorney showed a video of Spencer, the so-called “suit-and-tie” white nationalist who led the now-infamous torchlight march on the University of Virginia’s campus the weekend of the rally, saying he was “born at the right time for the race war.” Cantwell, meanwhile, mentioned Mein Kampf and dropped the N-word in his opening statement during the trial.

While many of the defendants sought to distance themselves from one another over the course of the case, they were all nonetheless involved in a rally (Spencer described the apartment they partied in as the “fash loft”) that ignited a firestorm nationwide, forcing then-President Donald Trump and members of his party to confront the country’s rash of racist extremism in what became a low point for the GOP several months into Trump’s first—and only—term. Joe Biden, meanwhile, said the rally inspired him to run for president. 

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Nonprofit Integrity First for America, the organization that brought the federal civil suit under the Ku Klux Klan Act, a Reconstruction-era law that was designed to protect Black Americans’ civil rights from white supremacist violence, celebrated their win in a statement shortly after the verdict.

“This case has sent a clear message: Violent hate won’t go unanswered. There will be accountability,” Integrity First for America Executive Director Amy Spitalnick said. 

“Our plaintiffs presented overwhelming evidence that the violence was no accident. We’re heartened that the jury agreed,” Spitalnick continued. “These judgments underscore the major financial, legal, and operational consequences for violent hate—even beyond the significant impacts this case has already had. And at a moment of rising extremism, major threats to our democracy, and far too little justice, this case has provided a model for accountability.”

For nearly a month, jurors have shuffled in and out of the small federal courthouse in downtown Charlottesville, where they were seated six feet apart (for social distancing) on long wooden benches in the teal-colored courtroom. 

There, they’ve heard stomach-churning racist slurs, been exposed to endless replays of videos showing the most violent moments from Unite the Right (including the moment when 20-year-old James Fields plowed into a crowd of counterprotesters and killed Heyer. Fields is serving life in prison and was found liable for $12-million in damages by the jury today) They’ve witnessed absurd antics by some of the defendants, particularly by neo-Nazi shockjock Cantwell, who was representing himself pro se. During the trial, Cantwell announced on a podcast that he saw the proceedings as a “tremendous opportunity” to reach supporters and get his ideas out. 

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Jurors also heard emotional testimony from the nine plaintiffs, four of whom were part of the crowd that Fields drove into, about their nightmares since, their flashbacks, and enduring injuries. 

They were invited to award three levels of damages to the nine plaintiffs, a diverse group of individuals including residents and counterprotesters who suffered enduring physical injury and psychological trauma as a result of the events that weekend. 

They had the option of awarding compensatory damages, which would cover the cost of the plaintiffs’ medical bills. They had the additional option to award damages for pain and suffering (lawyers recommended $7 million to 10 million for those who were physically injured, and $3-5 million for the others). The final option was to award the plaintiffs with punitive damages, a dollar amount jurors would come up with upon finding that the defendants acted “maliciously”, or in spite, or wantonly, with callous regard to the rights of the plaintiffs. 

The purpose of punitive damages, explained lead plaintiff attorney Roberta Kaplan, is to send a clear message—and prevent the defendants from ever engaging in the kind of behavior that played out before, during, and after Unite the Right. 

Plaintiffs’ lawyers, who spent years compiling 5.8 million megabytes of digital evidence, including internal planning chats from private Discord servers, had to show that the two dozen defendants conspired to incite racially motivated violence in Charlottesville. Before the trial had even begun, two of the defendants, Eliot Kline (who served as the leader of the now-defunct white nationalist group Identity Evropa) and neo-Nazi Robert “Azzmador” Ray, were already found liable in the case because they refused to comply with court orders to turn over their electronic devices. 

To prove a conspiracy in a civil case, lawyers had to show that the defendants came to Charlottesville to cause violence and terrorize minorities. For the conspiracy to be true, only one alleged member had to have committed an overt act of violence in the name of that conspiracy. In this case, that overt act, they argued, was committed by Fields when he drove into the crowd of counterprotesters.