104 – Jamal Alsaffar – Sutherland Springs: The Untold Story of a Foreseeable Tragedy
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Warning: This episode contains details of the Sutherland Springs massacre. Portions of the show will cover issues of domestic violence, gun violence, and content that may be disturbing to some listeners. Listener discretion is advised.
This episode is dedicated to the memory of all those whose lives were taken in the Sutherland Springs massacre, the survivors, and their families.
In this episode of the Trial Lawyer Nation podcast, Michael sits down with trial lawyer Jamal Alsaffar, who served as lead counsel representing the victims of the Sutherland Springs massacre vs. the United States Government, obtaining a $230,000,000 verdict.
They begin the episode with a look at Jamal’s background. Born and raised in Dallas, Texas, he moved to Austin to go to college, where he met his now wife and law partner. Today they are both partners at National Trial Law in Austin, Texas, along with Jamal’s mentor, Bill Whitehurst. Jamal has tried numerous personal injury cases involving medical malpractice and catastrophic injury but has found a rare specialty in Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) cases.
Michael then quickly asks Jamal how he got started in FTCA cases, as it is notoriously difficult to sue the federal government. He shares how his first FTCA case was a birth injury case at an Army hospital. Even though he had many hoops to jump through, he ended up obtaining a very favorable verdict and realized that military families weren’t receiving high level trial lawyer representation in their cases. From there, his practice spread, and now he tries FTCA cases all over the country.
As Jamal lists the many requirements to try FTCA cases, it’s clear why there are so few lawyers who specialize in them as they are fraught with land mines.
The tone shifts somber as Michael asks Jamal about what happened in the Sutherland Springs shooting. He describes how on November 5th, 2017, a former Air Force member walked into a small church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, where he opened fire. 26 members of the congregation were killed, and 22 were injured. While this man was in the Air Force, he was convicted of multiple felonies involving domestic violence and put in jail. Federal law requires that the agency who convicted him report the felony to the FBI’s background check system, but the Air Force did not. Because of this, the shooter was able to legally purchase firearms and ammunition at Academy Sports, which he used to commit mass murder.
Diving into the legal difficulty of a case like this, Michael asks Jamal what legal challenges he faced with holding the federal government liable on tort liability for someone failing to report criminal convictions. Jamal shares how they faced a 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss on this issue, and the government’s defense was they cannot be held liable for this failure to follow federal law. But as Jamal successfully retorted, of course they can.
As Jamal puts it, at the end of the day, they didn’t have an excuse for not reporting this felony. In fact, as they learned in discovery, this was not a one-time clerical error. There was a documented 30-year history of the federal government not reporting felonies to the FBI’s background check service on a massive scale. Various internal warnings noted between a 30-50% failure rate, which was even worse at the base the shooter was stationed at in New Mexico – where many employees didn’t even know they were required to report. This was clearly a systemic problem which had been going on for a very long time.
“What we found was a 30-year history of the federal government not reporting on a massive scale.” – Jamal Alsaffar
Michael asks if the government has since done anything to fix this problem, to which Jamal replies with two powerful examples:
- In the Air Force alone, there were over 5,000 unreported felons. As a result of this litigation, all 5,000 of those have now been reported.
- The entire system of reporting and checklist system has now been automated and modernized for every branch of the military. They now use the system Jamal’s expert recommended.
Reflecting on those successes is momentous – as trial lawyers, we often think about the good we’re doing for one family, but it’s so rare to have the opportunity to tangibly make the entire country a safer place.
The next issue the government tried to fight on was foreseeability. They argued they could never have foreseen this man would do what he did. Jamal explains how they were lucky with the evidence, but it wasn’t magic – this was gumshoe work and discovery. After being stiff armed so aggressively that they wouldn’t even give Jamal mandatory disclosures, the judge became so angry with the U.S. attorneys he sanctioned them (without Jamal even asking) and ordered they provide the documents and witnesses requested.
“The level of negligence and how high it went … all the way up to the Secretary of the Air Force.” – Jamal Alsaffar
It was immediately clear why the U.S. attorneys tried to hold onto this information. The contents of these documents were appalling.
- The shooter’s violence was documented, and his domestic violence crimes were committed with guns.
- He had been institutionalized by the Air Force for mental health twice, including for trying to use a gun to kill himself.
- While in the mental hospital, his computer searches included “how to commit a mass shooting” and “how to get weapons”, and the government knew about those searches.
- He had threatened to commit a mass shooting on the base, to his superior commanders,
This man was institutionalized by the Air Force while he was threatening and planning to commit a mass shooting.
Michael then inquires if the shooting was random, or if the man knew people at the church. The answer is haunting – it was not random, but an act of domestic violence. It was the church his wife grew up in, and where she would go to escape him.
“It was not a random act. It was related to the very thing the Air Force convicted him of and failed to report on.” – Jamal Alsaffar
Michael then asks Jamal how he became the lead attorney on a massive trial team filled with heavyweights. The answer lies in one of Michael’s first questions: “What on Earth is the FTCA?” Jamal is one of only a handful of attorneys who try these cases regularly, but he also credits his communication, honesty, and preparation. He had an air-tight plan before he even filed the lawsuit, then meticulously drafted complicated pleadings where even a small mistake could ruin the case. But even with his vast FTCA experience and knowledge of how these cases work, he admits he had never tried a case like this before – in fact, only a few people have, and never at this magnitude.
“This is one of the most unique trials that’s ever been done in the history of the FTCA.” – Jamal Alsaffar
One big decision Jamal and his partner, Tom Jacob, made was to not depose any of the government’s experts. They knew the government wouldn’t settle, so there was nothing to be gained from taking a great depo. They did file one partial summary judgement, but they intentionally kept out some real bombshells they found in discovery and strategically saved them for trial.
As a result, they were able to surprise the judge with 2-4 new documents or facts he had never seen each day of trial that were “eye-popping.” As Jamal shares some of these, it’s easy to see why saving them was the right call. As the U.S. attorneys tried to defend themselves by saying this man was simply a monster, Jamal made it clear they knew this man was a monster and did nothing to stop him from harming the public, even after they banned him from accessing military bases and upped his security risk after he tried to access them anyways.
“He was a monster that you knew better than anyone else … even his family. And you let him loose.” – Jamal Alsaffar
Jamal continues by lamenting the fact that the judge only let him use one of his carefully crafted trial boards, but the timeline he was allowed to use showed a detailed progression of the shooter’s madness, aggressiveness, weapons purchases, and where he would have been caught and prosecuted if his felonies had been reported. It was a fantastic visual aid Jamal agreed to share with our listeners and can be found below.
Included in this timeline was one of the most shocking pieces of evidence in the entire case, which Jamal found by mining for third party discovery. The sheriff’s department had responded to a call at the shooter’s residence just 3 days before the massacre took place, where the exchange was caught on their body cameras. Because the man was acting aggressive and erratic, even threatening the cops, they looked him up in their database – where they found no record of his felonies because the Air Force didn’t report them. In this exchange, the man had a gun and stated he was armed, which he would have been arrested for carrying if the officers were able to see his felony conviction record.
Michael then asks how the trial was broken up. Jamal explains how the liability trial and damages trial were conducted separately. The liability trial took about 1 ½ months, but they had to wait another 2 months for the verdict. After the judge found the government to be 60% liable, he tasked Jamal’s team and the U.S. attorneys to get together and decide how to present this case efficiently. The result was an estimated 1-month trial for Jamal’s team, but an estimated 6-month trial for the U.S. attorneys. The judge decided to put faith in Jamal and agreed to a 1-month damages trial.
With so many plaintiffs and the delta variant spreading rapidly, Jamal had some challenges to overcome if his 1-month damages trial was going to be successful. He had to limit each plaintiff in the case to 1 hour of testimony, which required immense cooperation and preparation with his many co-counsels. To stave off the government’s fear of a Covid outbreak in the trial, Jamal even set up a Covid testing room in the courthouse, where each witness was required to test before entering the courtroom.
During the damages trial, Jamal shares some of the terribly heartbreaking stories told and how he used the actual courtroom to tell them, in lieu of the visuals he originally had planned. He tells a profound story of a realization he had one day, while sitting where the massacre took place and preparing mentally before trial. It’s a phantasmal story you have to hear in order to understand why every time the courtroom doors opened … people were on edge.
Part of the reason Jamal put so much effort into the verbal description is because he did not want to show the video of the shooting or the aftermath in the trial. After stating repeatedly to the government he would not submit the video into evidence, it was shockingly the government who moved to have the video entered the day before trial. And even though Jamal rejected it, the judge agreed to admit it because it is evidence. Jamal then asked for the video to not be shown to the media or the family members and placed under seal, which the judge agreed to.
The government may have thought Jamal would want to show the brutal carnage at the church, but that was never something he considered. Instead, Jamal chose to use stills from the video to show the scene right before the shooting. Describing this loving space, the joy, and the sense of community, “the second before it turned to hell,” Jamal’s remarkable skill to visually tell the story with his words will surely bring a tear to your eye.
After sharing more examples of the other evidence used in the case, Jamal highlights how important it was for the judge to understand the sights, the sounds, and the smells of that day. He deftly narrates the poignant scene when each plaintiff and witness spoke on the stand, shared what they saw, and verbalized their pain. With each testimony, the damages case came together for the judge.
Once the trial concluded, the attorneys had to wait patiently for the verdict for MONTHS. Jamal says the liability verdict is more stressful than the damages verdict and shares the very moment he read the result – a historic $230,000,000.
Broken down, it’s a reasonable amount for each plaintiff based on the standard for deaths and injuries. This way, the verdict is much less likely to be appealed, though Jamal admits he wanted more. He praises the judge who handled the case and includes his well-researched, well-founded opinion which will be tough for the defense to overturn on appeal.
Jamal and Michael wrap up the episode with a look at how background check laws work and how successful the program is when agencies report felonies to the FBI as required. This foreseeable tragedy should never have happened – and thanks to the work of Jamal, all of his co-counsel, and everyone who worked on this case, it will hopefully never happen again.
Resources provided by Jamal Alsaffar:
Jamal Alsaffar is a partner at National Trial Law in Austin, Texas. Jamal represents victims of catastrophic injuries across the state of Texas and has a national practice prosecuting cases against the Federal Government under the FTCA (Federal Tort Claims Act). Jamal and his partner Tom Jacob recently obtained a $230 million verdict against the federal government for their role in the largest mass shooting in Texas history that took 26 lives and injured 22 others at the Sutherland Springs First Baptist Church. Jamal has chaired AAJ’s Federal Torts practice section several times over the past decade, and has served as co-chair of the AAJ MedNeg/Birth Trauma group. He has been selected as one of the 20 “Leading Lawyers” in Texas under the age of 40—way back when he was under the age of 40. And has been named by his peers as a “Super Lawyer” consecutively from 2014-2022. Jamal soon hopes to be hired for his dream job—a perfect fit as he’s been telling anyone who will listen over the years—the next manager for Manchester United football club in England. He has three kids with his wife, law partner and boss, Laurie Higginbotham.