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Air Force to Pay Victims and Survivors $230M for Former Airman’s Church Shooting Rampage

A federal judge in Texas has ruled that the U.S. Airforce owes $230 million to the victims and families of the 2017 mass shooting in a Baptist church. 

Carolyn Casey, J.D.

Written by
— Updated on December 8, 2022

Air Force to Pay Victims and Survivors $230M for Former Airman’s Church Shooting Rampage

The military’s failure to report Devin Patrick Kelley’s court-martial conviction for domestic violence to the Federal Bureau of Investigation was at the heart of the court’s earlier determination that the government bore 60% of the responsibility for the harm from the massacre. The court found that the government not only failed to report the shooter’s history of violence but also several attempts to illegally enter military bases. The gunman, a former member of the Air Force, killed 26 people and wounded 22 when he opened fire during services at the Sutherland Springs, Texas church on November 15, 2017.

The Shooting

Seven minutes and 24 seconds was all it took for Kelley to kill churchgoers. Wearing black clothing and a skull-face mask, Kelley fired 450 rounds from an AR-556 rifle into parishioners as they tried to take cover under church pews and protect loved ones. When Kelley exited the church after his rampage, a bystander shot him in the leg. He later shot himself in the head after a high-speed car chase with a man who lived near the church.

His victims included children, parents, and grandparents in the small Texas parish. The church shooting traumatized survivors and shook a nation facing continual mass public shootings.

The mother of Kelley’s estranged second wife was a church member. However, neither she nor her husband was at the services when Kelley attacked.

A Gun Purchase That Should Never Have Happened

While serving in the U.S. Airforce, Mr. Kelley was court-martialed for assaulting his first wife and stepchild. The military discharged him from service in 2014. The government prosecutor in the domestic violence case said Kelly fractured the infant’s skull. With this conviction, federal law banned Kelley from possessing firearms. Yet, Kelley bought four guns over four years before he shot and killed people in the Baptist church shooting spree. In 2017, a source at the Pentagon told a reporter that the Air Force had made a mistake and never filed Kelley’s arrest and conviction in the federal crime database.

Furthermore, the plaintiffs’ counsel provided evidence that the government knew that Kelley had sexually assaulted and raped at least six other women—adding to his history of violent behavior.

Federal Torts Claim Act Against the United States

The plaintiffs brought an action against the United States seeking recovery under the Federal Tort Claims Act. In the July 2021 liability ruling, Judge Xavier Rodriguez concluded that the Air Force was 60% responsible for plaintiffs’ harm and liable for that portion of the damages.

Regarding motive, the federal judge found that the evidence and witness testimony showed that Kelley intended to kill his estranged wife’s family to isolate her—a clear pattern of physical, emotional, and verbal domestic abuse.

Attorneys at the National Trial Law Austin law firm served as lead counsel in the lawsuit for 19 families and survivors of the Sutherland Springs shooting. The firm provided evidence that the military considered Kelley mentally unstable. One of the Air Force mental health tests on Kelley found that he was in the “maximum risk range” for lack of control, violence, and stress coping. The plaintiffs’ attorneys also proved that the government knew about Kelley’s intent to commit a mass shooting on the military base when he escaped a mental hospital. Fortunately, he was caught before anything happened.

The Air Force also knew that Kelley carried weapons on the base and was obsessed with weapons and guerrilla tactics. Additionally, the Air Force knew that Kelley had said he contemplated attacking his military superiors and others. Kelley had attempted to illegally re-enter multiple military bases following his conviction and discharge. However, the government failed to report these instances.

The Court’s Decision

The court pointed to evidence that the military was also aware of Kelley’s history of domestic abuse and threats of mass violence, along with his attempt to commit a mass attack while in the Air Force. In the court’s eye, an overwhelming amount of evidence and credible testimony demonstrated that Kelley’s rampage in the Baptist church “was or should have been foreseeable to the United States.” In the verdict, the court noted that the Air Force had more than 70 opportunities to report Kelley’s felonies to the FBI, which would have prevented Kelley from purchasing guns.

The court imposed the 60% liability after determining that the Air Force leadership at Kelley’s base was negligent in supervising the military personnel responsible for collecting, maintaining, and submitting the church gunman’s fingerprints and criminal convictions to the FBI. The court found that the leaders’ negligent supervision was a proximate cause of the plaintiffs’ injuries.

The Recent Verdict on Damages

After the finding of liability, a bench trial followed where Judge Rodriguez resolved disputed factual issues related to the plaintiffs’ damages. On February 7, 2022, the judge announced his findings and conclusions. He awarded and apportioned a $230 million payout to the victims and their family members of the Southerland Springs shooting. The verdict outlines damages for about 80 people. The award includes compensation for:

  • Past and future mental anguish
  • Past and future physical impairment
  • Past and future loss of companionship and society
  • Past and future loss of consortium
  • Medical care expenses
  • Physical pain
  • Pecuniary damages
  • Property damage

The ruling’s highest award of $7 million went to a woman’s estate. The woman and her children died in the bloody shooting.

In its ruling, the court provided elaborate, detailed factual descriptions of the injuries those who perished and survived suffered during the violent shooting spree. The judgment also included personal stories and family experiences with the victims before the massacre. A mother trying to keep her wounded daughter safe watched her die when the gunman shot the child for crying. A young man suffered gunshot wounds to his arms and legs that required multiple reconstructive surgeries. The trauma survivors experienced from hearing the screams and gunshots while trying to survive also factored into the awards. The property award went to a neighbor whose property was damaged during the shooting.

Verdict Aftermath and Implications

Jamal Alsaffar, a lawyer for National Trial Law commented that Judge Rodriguez’s recognition that there must be accountability for this violence was really important to the plaintiffs. A spokeswoman for the Air Force indicated the military was reviewing the ruling. It is not yet clear if the government will file an appeal.

With the plethora of mass shootings in the United States, this case is significant in that the court held a third-party substantially responsible for deaths and injuries inflicted by a lone gunman. Lawyers will likely explore how to hold additional defendants beyond the shooter accountable in these tragedies. Litigants will pursue the concept of foreseeability to enlarge the pool of defendants potentially liable for damages. In particular, governmental agencies may increasingly find themselves named as defendants in mass shooting cases under the Federal Tort Claims Act.

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