video evidence

104 – Jamal Alsaffar – Sutherland Springs: The Untold Story of a Foreseeable Tragedy

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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:

 

Guest Bio:

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.

 

78 – Randy Sorrels – Masked Justice: Part 4

In this episode of the Trial Lawyer Nation podcast, Michael sits down with former President of the State Bar of Texas, Randy Sorrels for another installation of our Masked Justice series. Randy recently tried an interesting case where he represented the sons of two former professional baseball stars and received a $3.25 million verdict. They’ll cover that recent victory, how this trial was different from a pre-COVID trial, what it’s like representing famous clients in high profile cases, Randy’s service to his clients, and more.

They start off the episode by digging into Randy’s background. As a defense lawyer at a large firm early in his career, he was able to gain experience trying cases quickly after law school. That experience has proved invaluable since transitioning to exclusively plaintiff’s work, and he notes some interesting differences between how a plaintiff’s lawyer and a defense lawyer try a case. He then sums this up by stating, “Trials always happen because one side mis-evaluates the case. I’ve been on both sides of that.”

Michael then transitions the conversation to Randy’s recent trial verdict, and Randy starts by sharing the facts of the case. His clients were two minor league baseball players, who just happened to be the sons of former professional baseball players (and close friends) Roger Clemens and Mike Capel. The two young men were at a high-end bar/night club on New Year’s Eve of 2018 when they were brutally attacked by a bouncer and, Randy claims, the owner of the venue. After a “scuffle” which neither of the men were involved in broke out, they were both violently thrown out of the bar, causing Kacy Clemens injury to his throwing elbow and Conner Capel a fracture to the skull. But more importantly, they both suffered tarnished reputations for “being in a bar fight,” something the MLB does not take lightly.

Randy was hired on the case almost immediately, leading Michael to ask what he did to preserve evidence. He shares how the police attempted to preserve the security footage from the incident, but after a suspicious interaction with the owner, they were informed the cameras only live stream and do not record. Luckily, video of the incident had been captured on cell phones from patrons. This footage was the evidence needed to prove neither of the men were involved in the fight.

Michael then digs deeper into the mechanics of Randy’s COVID-era trial, which was held in person in Harris County, Texas. Randy explains how they selected the jury in a large convention center and how the judge did an excellent job with maintaining a safe environment for everybody. The courthouse setup placed the jurors where the audience usually sits and placed the witnesses in the jury box. If you stood up, you had to wear a mask- something Randy avoided doing for the first couple days of trial, but once he stood up with the mask on, he noticed jurors were paying better attention than when he was seated and mask-less.

Randy then discusses why he does not believe there was a negative effect on the jurors with Covid safety protocols, and though he was initially concerned the jury pool would lean conservative, it ended up being a very diverse and representative jury. And while this trial was far from “normal,” Randy is very satisfied with the $3.25 million verdict he received for his clients and was highly impressed with Harris County’s system for in-person trials during the pandemic.

Aside from the unusual circumstances surrounding the trial brought on by the pandemic, Michael is curious as to how you convince a jury to award a professional athlete’s son a 7-figure verdict. Randy explains how it was a challenge, especially because both clients were working within 10 days of the incident, but in the end it worked out. In fact, Roger Clemens’ testimony was especially powerful to the case. Randy shares an amazing story of what happened when the defense attorney tried to grill Roger about allegations of steroid use, but ended up saying, “I’m a huge fan, and you’re a hell of a baseball player.”

This wasn’t Randy’s first rodeo representing a famous client. Early in his career, he also represented Ozzy Osbourne after he was rear-ended in a taxi in Houston (something that left Michael star struck)! While his whiplash injury was seemingly minor, Randy explains how it turned into a fairly large case because Ozzy had to cancel 3 shows for the most rockstar reason you’ve EVER heard. This story is a must-listen for metal fans and legal enthusiasts alike!

Randy also explains how important service is to him through his time as the State Bar of Texas President, a mostly unpaid position which he served in for a year. He believes interacting with lawyers on both sides has made him an even better trial lawyer today, and helped give him the state-wide notoriety to start his own firm, Sorrels Law. Michael also points out how Randy will share when he gets the policy limits on a case with a $30,000 policy limit. But Randy explains why those cases are still important and deserve representation, something he’s happy to give them.

The pair end the episode with another unbelievable story from Randy’s most recent trial, involving a lovable defense witness with a hidden secret. This really is one you need to hear to believe!

This podcast episode also covers why Randy was hired so quickly on the Clemens case, a creative place to search for footage of a crash, the safety precautions taken by the court, whether or not you should conduct jury research before a trial, why big verdicts are good for all plaintiff’s lawyers (even if it’s not your own), and so much more.

If you’d like to speak with Randy Sorrels you can email him at randy@sorrelslaw.com or call his cell phone at (713) 582-8005.

 

Guest Bio:

Randy Sorrels is the Immediate Past President of the State Bar of Texas, which consists of almost 105,000 lawyers. Texas lawyers voted him to this position by the widest margin of victory in State Bar election history. As a Texas lawyer, Randy has also been named one of the top 100 lawyers in Texas for the last 14 years by Texas Super Lawyers magazine.

Randy holds five board certifications from the Texas Board of Legal Specialization and the National Board of Trial Advocacy. He has extensive experience handling personal injury cases, medical malpractice cases, and business disputes – including “bet the company” cases.

Most recently, Randy has been named the Best Lawyers® Medical Malpractice Law – Plaintiffs “Lawyer of the Year”, in Houston, and this is his third time for him to receive this honor. He has also been awarded some of the highest legal honors in Texas. He has been awarded the State Bar of Texas’ President’s Award (recognizing the one Texas Lawyer who provided the most outstanding contributions through distinguished service to the lawyers of Texas), the Judge Sam Williams Award (recognizing the Texas lawyer who provides the greatest contribution to both local bars and the State Bar of Texas), and the Houston Bar Association President’s Award (recognizing significant contributions to an HBA program). Early in his career, Randy was honored with the Woodrow B. Seals Outstanding Young Lawyer of Houston Award (recognizing the one young Houston lawyer who exemplified significant professional traits both inside and outside the practice of law).

 

52 – Karonnie Truzy – Iron Sharpens Iron: How Practicing in a Tough Jurisdiction Makes You A Better Lawyer

In this Trial Lawyer Nation podcast, Michael Cowen sits down with attorney Karonnie Truzy from North Carolina. This show covers everything from contributory negligence, to gross negligence, making your case about the company, 1983 civil rights cases, and the simple things attorneys can do to help with diversity and inclusion in our industry.

The conversation starts with a discussion on how to maintain a work-life balance, as it is certainly a big issue for the legal industry. Simply put Karonnie believes, “people make time for things that are important to them.” He shares how hard his paralegals work to make sure travel takes place in the middle of the week so on weekends he can be with his family. His law firm is also supportive and will proactively tell him to take some personal time when he’s spent long hours at the office (a rarity you hear about at big firms). And he shares a great example of their care for him when he injured his Achilles last year.

Contributory negligence is the next topic discussed and an important one. North Carolina is 1 of 4 states with contributory negligence, essentially stating if you are found to be ANY percent at fault and responsible in ANY way for your injury you cannot recover damages. It is a complete bar, which is different from other states with a comparative negligence between the plaintiff and defendant. “Wow. So how do you deal with that?” Michael asks (clearly the same thought on everyone’s mind). It starts by accepting cases on a case by case basis. But it’s also incredibly important to do a lot of investigation work at the very beginning from talking with witnesses and law enforcement, to gathering video evidence. And while contributory negligence is difficult Karonnie also discusses “last clear chance” and “gross negligence” as ways to get around it.

Michael and Karonnie then discuss what can be done to make a case about a company and not just the driver in order to make it a bigger case. To begin Karonnie shares why it is important to have everything you need in discovery from employee handbooks to training materials. JJ Keller is often referenced, so Michael adds why these materials can be useful to plaintiff attorneys by giving an example of how his law partner Malorie Peacock is using the JJ Keller training to learn what the rules are and what people should be trained on for a unique explosion case. Karonnie then explains how he organizes his depositions and uses 30(b)(6) to know he is deposing the right people in the case (30(b)(6) is discussed in detail in episode 30 with Mark Kosieradzki).

Karonnie also handles 1983 civil rights cases, which leads to a discussion of qualified immunity with police officers. You’re usually not the attorney riding in on a white horse and most jurors already believe your client did something wrong. So how do you handle juror perception? In most cases like this the police department will hold a press conference and news stories will be shared, so Karonnie will use this footage to ask whomever made those statements “was this truthful, was this actually what happened?” He does this in front of the jury, so they can see how these statements before a proper investigation can skew their perception because the information was inaccurate. The same inaccurate information also aids in mean comments on media articles, which Karonnie purposely does not read. However, the conversation comes full circle when Michael shares he reads those mean comments to learn about hurdles he has on a case and Karonnie states he does this with focus groups whether it’s a civil rights case or a trucking case.

Explaining the dynamic of a family after they lose a loved one is critical in our industry. But sometimes we as attorneys have to explain to a jury why the value of life is the same no matter who it is. If our client was not the perfect person and lost their life, “we take away the opportunity for redemption” Michael poetically states. Karonnie responds with a heartfelt example of a case where in deposition the daughter of a deceased client describes why she is upset about the loss of her father when her relationship with him was not great. It’s a story that will undoubtedly resonate with everyone and may bring some to tears as they realize just how precious every day is in life.

The topic of “diversity and inclusion” is often discussed in the legal industry. Karonnie recently finished his 3 year role as Chief Diversity Officer for the North Carolina Advocates for Justice and shares how this role was created to work to on this issue. But change doesn’t just happen, it has to be real and not “just words on a paper” he explains. Michael shares his simple, yet effective, way of simply inviting new people to join a group. This leads Karonnie to describe the impact cliques can have within an organization, or when attending a CLE, and why it’s important for attorneys to realize when this happens you leave people out and it can create a problem. It’s a truly honest and open conversation on what can sometimes be an uncomfortable topic to discuss.

This podcast also covers sudden emergency defense, how the AAJ Trucking Litigation Group helps with industry standards, using the commercial driver’s license manual to show what is reasonable in adverse weather conditions, and so much more.

 

ABOUT THE GUEST

Karonnie Truzy is a North Carolina attorney where he practices as a Partner with the law firm of Crumley Roberts, LLP. Karonnie has been licensed to practice in the state of North Carolina since 2001 in both state and federal courts and he concentrates his practice on handling
complex injury cases, commercial motor vehicle cases, and wrongful death claims throughout the state of North Carolina in Federal and State Court. Karonnie earned an undergraduate degree from the University of South Carolina at Spartanburg (Upstate) where he played basketball and further earned his Juris Doctorate from the Wake Forest University School of Law. He is dedicated to providing quality legal representation to each of his clients has helped his clients obtain successful results throughout North Carolina.

 

Karonnie is an accomplished attorney and has received a 10/10 Superb AVVO rating. He is listed in the Best Lawyers publication and serves on various boards on legal associations in North Carolina. Karonnie has most recently served as the Chief Diversity officer for the North Carolina Advocates for Justice, the state’s largest Plaintiff’s bar. Karonnie has a passion for the practice of law but more importantly providing legal guidance to clients in need of assistance.

 

Karonnie is actively involved in his community and church. In his free time, he enjoys spending time with his family, working within his church, basketball and more basketball! Karonnie is married and has one daughter and twin boys.

 

Education

• Wake Forest University School of law, Juris Doctorate, 2001

Order of the Barristers for Excellence in Trial Advocacy

• University of South Carolina Spartanburg, B.S., 1998

Professional Affiliations
North Carolina Bar Association
United States District Court for the Eastern, Western, and Middle Districts of North Carolina
United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit
American Association for Justice
Academy of Truck Accident Attorneys
North Carolina Advocates for Justice

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