In a significant ruling on civil liability for gun-related fatalities, a federal trial court this past week ordered the federal government to pay more than $230 million to families and victims of the 2017 Sutherland Springs mass shooting. The survivors and their kin sued under the Federal Tort Claims Act, alleging that the Air Force’s failure to properly report the shooter’s prior domestic violence conviction—which barred him from possessing or purchasing guns under federal law—freed him to purchase the firearm used in the shootings. In a ruling last year following an extensive trial, the court determined that the federal government failed to exercise reasonable care and was 60% at fault for the injuries that resulted. (This case stands in contrast to a suit brought by survivors against the gun shop that sold the shooter the weapon, as the Texas Supreme Court determined recently that the suit against Academy Sports + Outdoor was barred by the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act.)
In this week’s 185-page decision in Holcombe v. United States, the court resolved disputes over the amount of damages the plaintiffs suffered. The court noted the difficulty of quantifying the injuries in a case like this (footnote omitted):
Ultimately, there is no satisfying way to determine the worth of these families’ pain. However, the Court has looked to other damage awards for wrongful death and personal injury for guidance, particularly other FTCA cases. While this case is unprecedented in kind and scope, these awards have been instructive. Given the number of injured and deceased persons in this tragic shooting, the Court will discuss the amount of these damages awards by each family, per each claimant.
The court then painstakingly, in over a hundred pages of opinion, chronicled the details of the approximately 80 persons who suffered devastating direct and indirect injuries from the shooting.
This is not the first tort lawsuit against the government for failed processes that resulted in a mass shooting. Victims and their families sued the federal government after the 2015 Charleston shooting, and the Fourth Circuit ruled that their claims under the FTCA could proceed. Last year, the government reached a settlement in the case with $63 million for families of those killed and $25 to survivors.