Families of three Uvalde shooting survivors sue school district, gun makers, city officials and others

Children arrive at Flores Middle School on Sept. 6 for the first day of classes in Uvalde. The families of three survivors of the Uvalde school shooting in May have filed the first lawsuit related to the tragedy. (Evan L'Roy/The Texas Tribune, Evan L'Roy/The Texas Tribune)

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The families of three children who survived the Uvalde mass shooting in May have filed the first lawsuit in a federal court against the Uvalde school district, law enforcement officials, gun makers and others, alleging that their negligence and failures contributed to the massacre.

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The suit was filed Wednesday in Texas’ Western District Court and is seeking unspecified damages. One of the children in the lawsuit was wounded in the shooting and was best friends with one of the students killed, according to the lawyers.

“We are after accountability and damages, and because my plaintiffs are young, they will have to deal with the trauma of what they went through,” said Stephanie Sherman, the families’ lawyer. “It’s just a perfect soup of lack of care, and I can’t help but think this poor community was not protected in any way.”

In all, the suit names 10 defendants: the Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District; since-fired school district police chief Pete Arredondo; the City of Uvalde; Mariano Pargas, a lieutenant who was the acting Uvalde police chief during the shooting; Mandy Gutierrez, the school’s principal who the suit alleges failed to notify teachers of the gunman’s presence through the school’s intercom; Daniel Defense LLC, a gun manufacturer; Firequest International Inc., which designed an accessory trigger system the gunman used; Oasis Outback LLC, the gun store in Uvalde where the shooter bought and picked up his firearms; Motorola Solutions Inc., which designed or sold radio communication devices used by first responders that allegedly failed; and Schneider Electric USA Inc., which is alleged to have made or installed the doors at the school.

The defendants could not be immediately reached for comment.

About a month ago, another law firm served the Uvalde school district with a $27 billion claim over the May 24 shooting at Robb Elementary School that left 19 children and two teachers dead.

The lawsuit says each defendant played a part in the shooting’s tragic outcome, from producing faulty technology that hindered first responders to pushing dark marketing that pitches lethal weapons to young minds.

The suit alleges Daniel Defense, the company that manufactured a weapon used by the gunman, targets young people not of age to buy a gun with heavy social media marketing. Further, the suit accuses the Georgia gunmaker of trying to sell military-grade weapons — depicting men clad in combat gear on battlefields in ads— to civilians with no military training.

Pointing to four other mass shootings that have occurred in the last decade, the suit alleges the company knows its weapons are being used in massacres but remains “ignorant of the human harms and losses resulting from its reckless marketing practices.”

“Daniel Defense intentionally misleads consumers in a fantasy scheme engineered for maximum profit at the expense of American lives,” the suit says.

The shooter had bought a variety of guns in the days after he turned 18 years old, including a Daniel Defense AR-15-style semi-automatic rifle he picked up at the gun shop Oasis Outback in Uvalde.

The suit alleges the gun store “knew, or should have known, the gunman was suspicious and dangerous.” According to the suit, the owner of Oasis had allegedly spoken with the gunman and asked how he could afford $3,000 worth of guns and ammunition.

Witnesses who were in the store later told the FBI the gunman was “very nervous looking,” according to the suit. With a clean background check, however, the store sold the teen the weapons.

“The store owner and his staff did not act on their suspicions and block the purchases or notify law enforcement,” the suit states. “The shooter was able to assemble a lethal military-grade assault weapon with a 30-round capacity magazine capable of pulverizing many people within minutes with no oversight, licensure, experience, or training.”

As early as February, according to the suit, the shooter began buying firearm accessories including a Hell-Fire trigger system, a device similar to a bump stock that can enable a rifle to fire like a fully automatic gun. He was still underage then.

Regarding the school system, its leaders and law enforcement, the suit describes a culture of “noncompliance with safety protocols, state-mandated school shooter training, disregard for school alerts, and deliberate indifference to the threat of criminal trespassers and school shooters leaving the children and teachers vulnerable to attack.”

The suit describes lapses of judgment similar to the ones documented in a Texas House committee’s investigative report about the shooting. The 77-page report illustrated a school system that had strayed from adherence to its safety plan and a tremendous police response that disregarded active shooter training.

Leaning on testimony and reports issued by the investigating agencies, the suit documents a timeline of the response to the shooting and the failures that day, some of which preceded the shooting such as previously documented problems with a classroom door that would not lock but was never fixed. The gunman entered the classroom through that door.

“It was the perfect storm,” Sherman, the lawyer, said. “You have several gatekeeping entities that failed.”

The Department of Public Safety, whose 91 troopers outnumbered local law enforcement the day of the massacre, is not named as a defendant in the lawsuit, but as attention has turned to the failures and shortcomings surrounding the tragedy, questions have also emerged about the state police’s role in the shooting response. While the agency’s leaders have deflected blame and scrutiny, Director Steve McCraw has said he’ll resign if troopers of the state’s top law enforcement agency had “any culpability” in the delayed response.

Correction, Sept. 29, 2022: A previous cutline on this story misidentified the school pictured. The school is Flores Elementary School, not Flores Middle School.

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