Lawsuit filed by an employee against Catholic Charities of Omaha regarding an active-shooter drill
Lopez was later diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
An employee of Catholic Charities in Omaha has filed a lawsuit against the organization, claiming that its leaders deliberately caused her and others to feel threatened and afraid for their lives by staging a fake active shooter drill without informing them.
During the incident on May 19 at the organization’s office located at 9223 Bedford Ave, employees became panicked after hearing gunshots and seeing a masked man with a semi-automatic handgun.
Some individuals were seen running for safety while at least one person lay on the ground with fake blood.
According to an Omaha police officer, executives knew that it was only a training exercise but did not inform their subordinates, who had no knowledge that the situation was not real. Local authorities were also not informed about the drill.
According to the lawsuit, Denise Bartels, who serves as the executive director of Catholic Charities of Omaha, allegedly failed to address employee Sandra Lopez’s concerns about an impending shooting and even confirmed that there was indeed a shooting.
Lopez, who is a bilingual loan officer and still employed by the organization, was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and continues to receive treatment for a back injury sustained while escaping the gunman by jumping off a retaining wall.
The lawsuit claims that Lopez has been experiencing severe symptoms such as fear, depression, and intrusive memories. Bartels declined to comment on the lawsuit’s allegations but stated in a release that the organization takes all training-related issues seriously and prioritizes the safety and well-being of its staff, volunteers, and the community it serves.
The World-Herald initially reported that John Channels, who played the role of the fake gunman during the training exercise, was arrested on charges of terroristic threats and weapon use.
He was hired by Catholic Charities staff for $2,500 to plan the training, and the nonprofit claims that Channels insisted on keeping the drill a secret from employees to make it more realistic.
However, Channels denied this allegation through his attorney and said that the organization wanted it to be as lifelike as possible. Lopez’s lawsuit closely aligns with her account of the incident to Omaha Police Detective Derek Mois when she was interviewed a few weeks later.
According to the lawsuit, Lopez arrived at work on May 19 and spoke with her supervisor about work-related matters, who did not mention that there would be a drill that day.
At around 9:30 a.m., she heard three bangs on her door and saw Dave Vankat, the chief community engagement officer for Catholic Charities, knocking on her window and yelling for her to leave.
Lopez saw Bartels, who appeared to be frightened, running towards an exit, and when she asked for an explanation, neither Bartels nor Vankat responded.
Feeling panicked, Lopez followed Bartels and another employee to a vestibule door, where she asked what was happening, and Bartels replied that it was a shooting. Lopez then heard three gunshots, and although Omaha police found 9mm blank casings at the scene, they did not take Channels’ firearm as they did not have enough probable cause to arrest him that day.
As Lopez exited the building, she saw a woman whom she recognized as a fellow employee lying on the ground with her eyes closed and what appeared to be blood on her hand.
Uncertain whether to help the injured woman, who she later discovered was an actor, Lopez hesitated. But when she saw Bartels and the other employee running across the street, she too fled. Concerned that her bright pink shirt would make her an easy target, Lopez chose a different route and jumped from a retaining wall near a dumpster to hide.
She then ran to a nearby coffee shop and waited for her son to pick her up. When her son contacted her supervisor to inform them that Lopez was safe but terrified, the supervisor informed him that the shooting was a safety drill.
According to a lawsuit, Denise Bartels, a supervisor at Catholic Charities, and Dave Vankat participated in a staged active shooter drill without informing all employees.
When Lopez’s son questioned why they didn’t tell his mother that it was a drill, the supervisor said they wanted to observe people’s reactions. The lawsuit alleges that Bartels and Vankat knew about the drill in advance and acted out their roles to terrify Sandra Lopez and other employees who were not warned about the planned drill.
While at least three other employees claimed they were unaware of the drill’s realism, Tom White, Lopez’s lawyer, argued that her situation falls outside of Nebraska Workers’ Compensation Court and filed the lawsuit in Douglas County District Court.
Catholic Charities’ attorney, Heather Veik, has filed a motion to dismiss the case, claiming that it belongs in workers’ compensation court. White contends that Catholic Charities intentionally caused harm to Lopez by holding an active shooter drill without informing certain employees, and this could have serious implications for workers’ rights in Nebraska.
White cited a 2013 Nebraska Supreme Court decision in which an employer was found to be willfully negligent but did not intend for a worker to die. He argues that this ruling did not establish an employer’s civil liabilities if their actions were intended to cause harm, as Catholic Charities’ actions allegedly were.
According to White, there is a distinction between intentionally doing something wrong and intentionally intending the resulting harm. He argues that if an employer can intentionally harm an employee, they may be protected by the limitations of workers’ compensation, which raises concerns about an employer’s civil liabilities.
White contends that the situation Catholic Charities subjected Lopez to is distinct from the grain bin incident, and he believes that a jury should examine the matter. He asserts that workers’ compensation court is more appropriate for physical injuries, not the mental and emotional distress that Lopez endured.
White argues that Catholic Charities intended to create fear in Lopez’s mind that she could be shot, and he alleges that they specifically intended to terrorize her.
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