DOJ wants lawsuits from Sutherland Springs church shooting consolidated

US Air Force has received 62 administrative claims from shooting

By Nicole Perez - Executive Producer
Erich Schlegel/Getty Images

Law enforcement outside the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, after a shooting on Nov. 5, 2017.

SAN ANTONIO - Government attorneys are asking a federal judge in San Antonio to consolidate two lawsuits filed by family members of victims of the deadly Sutherland Springs church shooting because, they say, the cases have a lot in common.

Devin Kelley opened fire on the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs on November 5, 2017, during morning services. Twenty-six people died, among them nine members of the Holcombe family: Bryan, Karly, Marc, Crystal and her unborn baby, and Noah. Three younger family members were also killed. They were Greg, Emily and Megan Hill. Twenty people were hurt in the shooting, including Margaret Vidal.

The Holcombe and Vidal families filed separate lawsuits against the government, specifically the U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. Air Force, alleging they "negligently failed to report Kelley's criminal record and mental treatment into certain federal databases, which plaintiffs assert would have prohibited Kelley from purchasing the firearms he used during the shooting."

The government said the two lawsuits likely "represent only the initial complaints" as it "has received 62 administrative claims stemming from the incident." 

Kelley died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound shortly after the shooting. Kelley was in the Air Force in 2012 when he faced a trial by court-martial for abusing his stepson. He told a judge, "(I) would never allow myself to hurt someone." 

A jury sentenced Kelly to 12 months' confinement and a bad conduct discharge, despite a request from Air Force prosecutors that Kelley receive four years of prison time so that he might get his anger under control, according to a trial transcript.

By the end of November 2017, the Air Force blamed failures in "training and compliance measures" for a personnel lapse that did not result in the fingerprint card and the report on the outcome of his court-martial being submitted to the FBI. If reported, this information should have stopped him from buying weapons, the Air Force said.

In a request for consolidation of the Holcombe and Vidal suits filed Monday, the government cited the same legal issues in the pending cases to "prevent multiple jurists from devoting valuable time and resources to the same liability issues, as well as void the specter of inconsistent rulings," the document said.

Furthering its argument, the government said consolidation of pretrial issues would allow them to "expedite proceedings by addressing common legal theories through the lead case."

"The United States anticipates the filing of numerous actions as a result of the shooting -- though it is unknown whether any of these anticipated plaintiffs will allege additional culpable parties as defendants," the document said.

The government attorneys also acknowledge that while the location and manner of deaths stem from the same incident, "the damages suffered by each of the plaintiffs as a result of their respective decedents' deaths are distinct ... and as such each case must be permitted to proceed separately."

The government has not yet filed a response addressing specific claims in either of the lawsuits.

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