Omaha woman suing Catholic Charities for injuries incurred during active-shooter training

Employee says she suffered — and is still being treated for — injuries she received during what she believed was an actual shooting event.
Catholic Charities is being sued by one of its own employees.
Published: Mar. 6, 2023 at 12:06 PM CST
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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - A woman employed at a nonprofit run by the Archdiocese of Omaha is suing them for trauma and injuries she experienced as a result of an active-shooter training drill last May.

Documents filed in Douglas County Court in January state that Catholic Charities employee Sandra Lopez has been receiving treatment for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of the events that took place during the drill; and for a back injury she says she received as a result of fleeing what she thought was an actual active-shooter scene.

The court documents petition for relief, alleging assault and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The documents do not specify what damages are sought but seek relief for incurred expenses, noting past and future medical expenses, disability, loss of earnings potential, as well as court costs and pain and suffering, “and any further relief that this court deems just.”

The documents detail Lopez’s account of the events of May 19 after she reported for work at Catholic Charities around 8 a.m. that day.

According to the documents, John Hurter, the organization’s Chief of Operations, and Lopez’s supervisor had stopped by her office, mentioning a business meeting and other office matters that morning but neither mentioned a security drill would be taking place that day.

About an hour later, at about 9:30 a.m., Lopez said she heard three “loud and violent bangs” on the office door, after which another executive, Dave Vankant, knocked on her window and yelled “Out! Out!” She said she saw Executive Director Denise Bartels run past her office with him and tried to ask them what was happening, but neither answered.

After running with another employee through an enclosed area leading from the lobby to a vestibule near a building exit, Lopez said she again asked what was going on, at which point Bartels said, “It is a shooting,” the court documents state.

Lopez said she then hear three gunshots as they all ran outside, where they saw another employee lying on the ground with blood on her hand and her eyes closed, the documents state.

“The woman appeared to be dead or mortally wounded,” the filing states, saying Lopez was “torn between terror and the thought she should try to help her so she stopped running.”

But fearing for her life, she continued running, according to the documents.

Worried that the bright pink shirt she was wearing might make her “a prime target,” she did not follow her coworkers into a bar across the street and instead jumped down a retaining wall to a lower level with a dumpster, and fled to a nearby shopping plaza, knocking on the rear doors of several businesses there in an attempt to find shelter.

After getting no answer, she ran to a nearby coffee stand and was allowed into the drive-through after telling them about the shooting, the documents state. She then called her son, who picked her up there at about 10:20 a.m., then called the COO to let him know that she was emotionally distraught but safe.

That’s when he told her son that the entire ordeal “was all play acting and a safety drill” that executive staff had been aware of the whole time, acting out their parts in order to terrify Lopez and other staff, the documents state.

Her son asked Hurter “Why would you do that?” and not tell his mother it was all staged, at which time the COO replied, “We wanted to see how people reacted,” the court filing states.

According to the court documents, Lopez sought counseling the next day and is still in treatment, noting that she has been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

“She has and continues to suffer debilitating fear, depression, unwanted and intrusive memories of that day and other symptoms,” the document states.

She also injured her back in the process of jumping down the retaining wall and continues to receive treatment for that as well, according to the documents.

Catholic Charities filed a motion Feb. 13 to dismiss the lawsuit for its “failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted,” and noting that “the Nebraska Workers’ Compensation Act provides the exclusive remedy for the injuries that Plaintiff alleges.”

An Omaha man was arrested last August in connection with the event. John Channels will be tried on six felony counts, five counts being for terroristic threats and one use of a firearm to commit a felony. According to court documents, Channels identified himself to local authorities as an Offutt civilian police officer.

Police said they discovered Channels had been firing blanks from a handgun and staged people throughout the area to act as victims so that employees would see them as they fled the building.