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Friday, December 8, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

US to pay $227 million to Sutherland Springs shooting survivors, families

A San Antonio federal judge had found the federal government 60% responsible for the mass shooting.

SAN ANTONIO (CN) — A federal judge in San Antonio told the federal government Monday to pay more than $227.3 million in damages to the survivors and family of victims of the deadliest mass shooting in Texas history.

“Ultimately, there is no satisfying way to determine the worth of these families’ pain,” wrote U.S. District Judge Xavier Rodriguez in the 185-page order.

The award falls short of the $400 million requested by the victims’ attorneys last November, but remains far greater than the $32 million originally offered by Department of Justice attorneys.

In his lengthy ruling, Rodriguez details the suffering and loss suffered by each of the 58 survivors and family members and 20 of the murder victims, considering every affected person before awarding damages — as high as $17.9 million — to the individuals and estates who sued the federal government for its role in the shooting that prompted this lawsuit.

In November 2017, disgraced ex-airman Devin Kelley shot and killed 26 people worshipping at Sutherland Springs First Baptist Church and injured 22 more, in part, because the federal government failed to submit Kelley’s criminal history to the FBI’s background check database.

If the Air Force had properly submitted Kelley’s record — according to which the disgraced officer pleaded guilty to two counts of domestic abuse for assaulting his wife and fracturing her son’s skull in 2014, which earned him a bad conduct discharge and a year in the brig — no store with a federal firearms license could have sold him the AR-15 he used to carry out the massacre.

Following a monthslong bench trial in 2021, U.S. District Judge Xavier Rodriguez found that the government bore 60% of the responsibility for Kelley’s spree.

The estates of those who were killed received between $5 and $7 million. A boy who was 5 years old when he was repeatedly shot in the attack, but survived, was awarded more than $11 million to compensate for the physical suffering and debilitating injuries he suffered and continues to treat, in addition to the mental and emotional turmoil of losing family members at such a young age.

Zachary Poston was 18 when he played dead after getting shot twice by Kelley, who targeted and tormented parishioners who were crying out and begging him not to kill their friends and family. Poston, who was athletic before the shooting, now experiences chronic pain and can walk with the help of braces or a cane for only short periods of time. He was awarded $8.9 million to compensate for his impairments and future difficulty earning income.

The court awarded $0 to only one plaintiff. Ruben Rios, the legal spouse of Tara McNulty when she died in the shooting, brought a wrongful death claim in her name. He brought love letters and phone records to show that, though their relationship had deteriorated before McNulty’s death, the two enjoyed a marital relationship.

Rios had been arrested in 2015 after his daughter and stepdaughter accused him of sexual assault, though he was acquitted after spending three years in pretrial detention. The last of the love letters between the two was brought more than a year prior to the shooting and McNulty had begun seeing another man the spring of 2017.

“Tara had clearly abandoned the relationship prior to her death,” Judge Rodriguez determined, writing that the court awarded no damages for loss of companionship or mental anguish.

McNulty’s two children were awarded $7.9 million and the federal government was ordered to give an additional $7 million to their mother’s estate; McNulty had pushed her teenage daughter to the ground when the shooting began and comforted her before succumbing to five gunshot wounds.

These amounts may not be the final awards that the federal government must pay to the victims; Judge Rodriguez advised the government to file any objections within 10 days and the plaintiffs’ attorneys to send proposed final orders by the same deadline.

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Categories / Civil Rights, Government, Personal Injury, Trials

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