In most cases, the federal government, including military branches, is protected from lawsuits by what’s known as “sovereign immunity,” meaning citizens can’t sue the government unless it agrees to take part in the lawsuit.
But exceptions exist. The Federal Tort Claims Act allows civilians to sue the military for negligence, including wrongful death claims when beloved family members lose their lives due to the negligent actions of the military establishment.
Judge rules Air Force shares blame for Sutherland Springs shootings
A recent, horrendous example of military negligence shocked Texans and the rest of the nation during a November 2017 mass shooting at a Sutherland Springs, Tex., church. The gunman, a former Air Force airman, opened fire during Sunday morning services, killing over two dozen worshippers.
Several years before the shootings, a military court convicted the gunman, Devin Kelley, of domestic assault. However, the Air Force failed to report the conviction or send Kelley’s fingerprints to the FBI despite its obligation to do so. In the Sutherland Springs case, the judge noted that the Air Force had several opportunities to comply.
The judge added that had the government done its job correctly, it’s probable that Kelley would not have passed a firearms background check and likely deterred from carrying out the mass murder. In his 99-page ruling, the judge determined that the Air Force was 60% responsible for the tragedy and Kelley 40%.
Attorney Dennis Peery of The Law Offices of Tyler & Peery successfully represented family members of one of the victims. A court is soon expected to determine the amount of compensation the government must pay to plaintiffs for the Air Force’s egregious mistakes. However, no monetary award will ever make up for these families’ devastating losses.
Marine leadership targeted in new investigation
The latest example of alleged U.S. military negligence involves the deaths of nine service members during a July 2020 training exercise. The victims died when an amphibious assault vehicle sank off the coast of San Clemente Island in California.
A hearing began on Jan. 4 into the incident after an investigation uncovered several failures leading up to the disaster, including maintenance deficiencies on the nearly 40-year-old vehicle and a delay in evacuating the nine service members once it began taking on water.
The bottom line in this instance, the Sutherland Springs tragedy and many other cases is that while holding the government responsible is challenging, there are remedies to hold these public entities and officials accountable when their negligent actions or inactions lead to harm against citizens.