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Victims, family from Sutherland Springs shooting awarded $230 million

First Baptist Church (May 5, 2018))
Joey Palacios
Texas Public Radio

A federal judge has awarded victims of the 2017 Sutherland Springs church shooting and their families more than $230 million. The award is a repudiation of the federal government — which was found mostly liable for the deaths of 26 people including a pregnant mother and her unborn child as well as the injuries of more than 20 others.

The massive award to the dozens of victims and their families represents more than seven times the $31 million government lawyers had argued they owed victims late last year.

Judge Xavier Rodriguez said in court documents that government lawyers were wrong to use the 9/11 victims fund as the basis for their calculations.

“Its effort to obfuscate its responsibility by attempting to import a no-fault damages model into a case in which the court has already found liability is wholly unavailing,” he wrote.

The $230+ million is about half what lawyers for the victims had requested.

There is still a chance the government will appeal the case to the 5th circuit court, which could again delay justice for victims.

Kris Workman was paralyzed by one of shooter Devin Kelley’s hundreds of bullets. He will be in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. Court documents and hours of expert testimony show the devastating impact of the injuries to his entire life. Workman said this would limit his ability to play with his daughter.

The former Rackspace employee was awarded nearly $18 million for physical pain, mental anguish, earning capacity and medical expenses.

The vast award followed a trial for damages that plumbed the depths of victims’ pain as well as that of their surviving families, but also didn’t shy away from declining awards. This was best illustrated by the McNulty family.

Lisa McNulty — who wasn’t at First Baptist Church Of Sutherland Springs — was awarded $400,000 in the death of her daughter. Tara, aged 33, succumbed to her five gunshot wounds. Court records show she received frantic text messages on the day of the shooting and then a call.

“Nana, I’ve been shot. Nana, I’m shot,” screamed her granddaughter Hailey who was also attending church that Sunday. Hailey survived her injuries.

But the court shut out Ruben Rios, Tara’s legal husband.

According to the 185-page court finding, Rios was accused of sexually abusing his child as well as one of McNulty’s and spent three years awaiting trial before being acquitted.

He testified he and Tara McNulty had continued their relationship.

“The court does not find Rios’s testimony credible,” said Rodriguez in the court’s finding awarding him nothing.

The case of shooter Devin Kelley exposed huge failures on the part of the military, which didn’t enter his military criminal record into the federal gun registry. It could have prevented him from getting the guns he used to kill 26 people. It prompted legislation and was the basis for Rodriguez’s finding that the government was 60% responsible for the shooting.

"The families are relieved that they finally at least see the light at the end of the tunnel and relieved that the judge had the wisdom to reject the government's view of what these lives were worth...," said Jamal Alsaffar, attorney for many of the victims.

The case spurred legislation aimed at bridging the legal gap and ensuring violent offenders are entered into the system.

"We really believe that our country is made safer by this case," said Alsaffar.

The award was made by Judge Rodriguez instead of by a jury as required under the Federal Torts Claims act. Rodriguez — when speaking extemporaneously after closing arguments last November — said he wished there was a jury in the case.

The federal government settled two similar shooting cases where it was found culpable. In both the Parkland, Fla. school shooting and Charleston church shooting it offered exponentially more than what it offered in Sutherland, a more deadly attack. The fact it didn't settle may suggest it always planned to appeal the decision to the conservative 5th circuit court.

A Justice Department spokesperson said they were reviewing the ruling, but would not comment further.

"These families go through two separate trials, these families had to spend a month ripping up open those wounds in order to tell the judge what they went through," Alsaffar said. "The right thing to do seems pretty clear."

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Paul Flahive can be reached at Paul@tpr.org