The tentative settlement was announced in separate statements by an attorney for the families and the Justice Department, which described it as an “agreement in principle.”
“No words or amount of money can diminish the immense tragedy of the mass shooting in Sutherland Springs,” Vanita Gupta, the associate attorney general whose portfolio includes the Justice Department’s civil division, said in a statement. “Today’s announcement brings the litigation to a close, ending a painful chapter for the victims of this unthinkable crime.”
Twenty-six people were killed and another 20 injured in the November 2017 shooting at First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, an attack that has left lingering physical and emotional scars on the rural Texas community more than five years later.
Dozens of victims sued the U.S. Air Force in 2018 after the branch said it did not report gunman Devin Kelley’s history of violence, including a 2012 conviction for domestic assault, to the FBI’s background check system. That conviction, which led to Kelley’s dismissal from the Air Force, should have prevented the former airman from being able to buy the guns he used in the attack.
In a July 2021 ruling, U.S. District Judge Xavier Rodriguez found the Air Force was “60 percent liable” for the attack. He cited the background check failures and other disturbing details uncovered at trial, including that Air Force officials were aware Kelley had previously researched and threatened a mass shooting and had a history of severe mental health issues that led officials to declare him to be “dangerous” and “a threat” — information they did not share with others.
“The trial conclusively established that no other individual — not even Kelley’s own parents or partners — knew as much as the United States about the violence that Devin Kelley had threatened to commit and was capable of committing,” Rodriguez wrote.
The judge later ordered the federal government to pay more than $230 million in damages to roughly 80 victims and relatives of those killed. But the Justice Department appealed that ruling, a move that has left survivors struggling to pay expensive, ongoing medical bills related to their grievous injuries and ongoing trauma.
In its appeal, the Justice Department described the Sutherland Springs attack as an “inexpressible tragedy” but argued it could not be more responsible than Kelley. At trial, government attorneys argued that Kelley, who died by suicide after the attack, would have obtained weapons even if his information had been properly reported to the background check system — a position that clashed with the Biden administration’s strong support of background checks and tightened restrictions on access to weapons.
Last fall, more than a dozen prominent gun-control advocacy groups urged the Justice Department to drop its appeal in the case. They warned the continued legal battle would undermine the “integrity” of existing gun laws, including the nation’s background check system, and delay justice for a community that continues to suffer “irreparable trauma.”
Those groups, along with others involved in the case, have questioned why the government did not settle the case before it went to trial as it had with other claims tied to high-profile mass killings.
In October 2021, the Justice Department agreed to pay $88 million to the survivors and families of the nine people killed in the 2015 shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., to settle claims that background check errors allowed the gunman to buy a weapon. Weeks later, the government agreed to pay $127.5 million to the survivors and families of those killed in the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., over claims the FBI failed to act on tips about the gunman.
Attorneys for the Sutherland Springs families and the Justice Department met for settlement talks last year overseen by Washington attorney Kenneth Feinberg, a renowned mediator known for overseeing the compensation fund for 9/11 victims as well as the Charleston and Parkland settlements. Those talks ended without a deal, but attorneys for both sides restarted negotiations earlier this year after the Justice Department outlined the specifics of its appeal in the case.
The tentative $144.5 million Sutherland Springs settlement, if approved, is less than the $230 million court-ordered judgment but more than the $32 million government attorneys proposed paying to the 84 victims involved in the case during the trial. Other terms of the proposed settlement were not immediately known.
In a statement announcing the tentative deal, Jamal Alsaffar, the lead attorney representing the Sutherland Springs families, urged Garland to quickly approve the settlement and put an end to what has been a painful legal drama for a community that continues to suffer years after the attack.
“The Sutherland Springs families are heroes. The country owes them a debt of gratitude. They have gone through so much pain and loss in the most horrific way. But despite that, these families fought for justice, endured and won two trials against the federal government, and made this country safer as a result,” Alsaffar said in a statement.
“But the settlement is not final. Attorney General [Merrick] Garland’s office still must approve it, and we urge his Justice Department to act quickly to bring some closure to these families. It’s the least they deserve.”