Feds Reach $144M Deal Over Ex-Airman’s Mass Shooting
By: Enrique Serna
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Feds Reach $144M Deal Over Ex-Airman’s Mass Shooting
Written by: Daniel Wilson & Edited by: Michael Watanabe
Re-posted from Law360 (April 5, 2023, 8:27 PM EDT) — The government on Wednesday announced a tentative $144.5 million settlement with more than 75 plaintiffs to resolve a case alleging the U.S. Air Force was responsible for an ex-airman’s deadly 2017 mass shooting at a Texas church.
The agreement, which is still subject to court approval, would end the government’s Fifth Circuit appeal of a Texas district court’s decision holding the U.S. Air Force 60% responsible for the attack for failing to report Devin Patrick Kelley’s court-martial conviction to a national background check database. U.S. District Judge Xavier Rodriguez had found the Air Force liable for $230 million in damages in consolidated suits from survivors and families of victims of the attack.
The November 2017 shooting at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, left 26 people dead and 22 others injured. After the shooting, Kelley fled the church and killed himself.
In July 2021, Judge Rodriguez ruled that he may have been prevented from purchasing firearms that he should have been disqualified from owning had Air Force personnel reported a 2012 domestic violence conviction.
“No words or amount of money can diminish the immense tragedy of the mass shooting in Sutherland Springs,” said a statement from Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta. “Today’s announcement brings the litigation to a close, ending a painful chapter for the victims of this unthinkable crime.”
Lead trial counsel for the plaintiffs, Jamal Alsaffar of Whitehurst Harkness Brees Cheng Alsaffar Higginbotham & Jacob PLLC, told Law360 on Wednesday that the agreement provides monetary relief to survivors who need to pay for medical care for permanent injuries.
“So many of these families are dealing with the after-effects of what an AR-15 does to the human body,” Alsaffar said. “It destroys bodies. That’s what it’s designed to do. And so many of these survivors, including several children, have lifelong injuries and they need help now, and will for the rest of their lives.”
He praised the families as courageous for challenging the government over its role in the gunman’s ability to access the rifle he used, saying Judge Rodriguez’s ruling forced the government to change the FBI‘s National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS, by adding tens of thousands of felons to its rolls.
“They took on the federal government of the United States and made them accountable for 30 years of allowing dangerous felons to get access to the most dangerous weapons imaginable,” Alsaffar said.
He described Judge Rodriguez’s findings as historic, saying it established that background checks are effective at preventing dangerous people from obtaining firearms.
He noted that the National Rifle Association supported the government’s appeal, alleging it opposed the ruling’s stance that background checks work “because that part is something we can build on.”
The NRA Institute for Legislative Action, the lobbying arm of the gun rights group, had published an article the day the government filed its brief to the Fifth Circuit in January, arguing the suit had made the Biden administration “admit inconvenient truths about the limitations of gun control.”
But Alsaffar said the appeal’s end preserves what the families fought hard for.
“We made the country safer and we want that to stand, and so for them, that is the thing they were worried about most, was that the government’s appeal would take that away,” Alsaffar said.
The NRA did not immediately respond to a request for comment late Wednesday.
The Air Force is represented by Brian M. Boynton, Mark B. Stern, Joshua M. Salzman and McKaye L. Neumeister of the U.S. Department of Justice‘s Civil Division and Jaime Esparza of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Texas.
The victims and their families are variously represented by Jamal K. Alsaffar and Tom Jacob of Whitehurst Harkness Brees Cheng Alsaffar Higginbotham & Jacob PLLC, Jason P. Steed of Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton LLP, April A. Strahan and Robert E. Ammons of The Ammons Law Firm, Daniel J.T. Sciano of Tinsman & Sciano, Daniel D. Barks of Speiser Krause PC, Mark W. Collmer of Collmer Law Group, Dennis C. Peery and R. Craig Bettis of Tyler & Peery, Tim Maloney and Paul E. Campolo of Maloney & Campolo LLP, George LeGrand and Stanley Bernstein of LeGrand & Bernstein, Joseph M. Schreiber and Erik A. Knockaert of Schreiber Knockaert PLLC, Justin Demerath of O’Hanlon Demerath & Castillo, Jason C. Webster of The Webster Law Firm, Brett T. Reynolds of Brett Reynolds & Associates PC, Marion M. Reilly of Hilliard Muñoz Gonzales LLP, Hugh J. Plummer of the Law Office of Thomas J. Henry.
The case is Holcombe v. U.S., case number 22-50458, in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.
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