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Sutherland Springs mass shooting victims reach tentative $144.5 million settlement with DOJ

Victims of a mass shooting that killed 26 people at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, in 2017 have reached a "tentative settlement" with the federal government for $144.5 million after years of pending civil suits, authorities confirmed on Wednesday.

The agreement, which the U.S. Department of Justice announced in a news release and which CBS News independently confirmed, came in response to a series of legal claims accusing federal officials of negligence and alleging they could have prevented the Sutherland Springs shooting but failed to do so. 

U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland's office still needs to approve the settlement amount before it is completely finalized. More than 75 plaintiffs involved in the settlement must also secure "the required court approvals," according to the Justice Department, which said it has approved "an agreement in principle" to settle the cases.

"No words or amount of money can diminish the immense tragedy of the mass shooting in Sutherland Springs," said Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta in a statement included in the Justice Department's release. "Today's announcement brings the litigation to a close, ending a painful chapter for the victims of this unthinkable crime."

The mass shooting at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs happened on Nov. 5, 2017. In addition to the 26 people who were fatally shot, another 22 were wounded when the gunman, Devin Patrick Kelley, of New Braunfels, Texas, opened fire inside the church building. He was later found dead in his car from a gunshot wound, authorities said at the time.

Jessica Mires leaves flowers on crosses for the victims of the mass shooting that killed 26 people at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, on Nov. 9, 2017.  AFP/Getty

The shooter was 26 years old and a former U.S. Air Force member who served from 2010 to 2014, a spokesperson for the Air Force confirmed after the massacre, citing records confirming that Kelley had previously served in logistics readiness in New Mexico prior to his discharge. In 2012, he was court-martialed for two counts of assault on his wife and assault on their child, and received a bad conduct discharge and confinement for 12 months.

Lawsuits brought in the wake of the Sutherland Springs shooting hinge on a federal judge's previous ruling that found the U.S. government was liable for the attack, because the Air Force failed to report the shooter's criminal background to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, which would have prevented him from buying guns from a federally licensed dealer. 

That ruling, which came out of a district court in Texas in early 2022, ordered the U.S. to pay $230 million to victims of the shooting in Sutherland Springs, a ruling that was contested by the federal government. This agreement would end the government's appeal once it is formally approved.

"The Sutherland Springs families are heroes. The country owes them a debt of gratitude," said Jamal Alsaffar, the lead trial attorney for the plaintiffs, in a statement to CBS News. "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 cautioned that the settlement as it stands "is not final," and urged the Justice Department "to act quickly to bring some closure to these families."

"It's the least they deserve," he said.

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