A federal lawsuit against Carbondale and a local nursing home could turn on whether nurse Michelle Meeker knew in advance that the home, with help of city police, would conduct an “active shooter drill” last October.
Meeker’s lawsuit, filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Denver, alleges that she was “sternly ordered” into an empty room by a man who “pulled his jacket back, revealing a gun tucked into the waistband of his jeans.”
The man was a Carbondale police officer and the gun was fake, but the lawsuit says Meeker knew nothing of that and was “afraid that if she went through that doorway she would not make it out alive.”
Her lawyer, Paula Greisen of Denver, says she has “numerous witnesses to verify” that employees didn’t know of the drill in advance. “Only the safety committee knew,” Greisen told the Post Independent.
Denver Attorney Thomas Rice, though, who is representing Carbondale in the lawsuit, said the city required that Heritage Park post notice at least a day in advance in a conspicuous location. He said he intends to make that document public when it becomes part of the proceedings.
Life Care Centers of America, which owns or operates 220 care centers including Heritage Park, would not address whether employees were notified.
A national expert on active shooter training told the Post Independent that no one should be surprised by a training event.
David Bolgiano, chief counsel and senior partner at Texas-based Countermeasure Consulting Group, which works with organizations around the country on safety plans, said he is skeptical that an exercise would be conducted without all participants being briefed in advance.
“It would be unconscionable, if true, that someone would be taken into a room under the false pretense that they are being held hostage,” said Bolgiano, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who served as assistant director for national security legal studies at the Army War College.
“We don’t sell fear,” he added. “People’s chances of being in an active shooter situation are roughly the same as being struck by lightning. That doesn’t mean we don’t have lightning rods,” so the training is valuable.
Meeker’s lawsuit says she was terrified.
“When the man was approximately four inches away from her, he put one hand on the gun and placed his other hand on her back, and told her again to get in the room,” the complaint says.
“Ms. Meeker began to cry,” it continues. “Her heart began to race and her breathing became shallow and constricted. Ms. Meeker began to shake with terror, fearing that she would never see her daughter again.
“In a desperate plea for her life, she begged the man not to hurt her, telling him she had a young child.
“As Ms. Meeker cried and begged for her life, the man said in a hushed tone that this was a ‘drill,’” the document says.
The man, Carbondale Police Officer Michael Zimmerman, at that point said he was an officer and “that he needed Ms. Meeker to get into the room so that he could continue the ‘drill.’”
Meeker’s suit says she was unsure the man was an officer.
“The police don’t have the right to walk up to a person and pull a gun and act like they are going to kill them,” Meeker’s attorney Greisen said. “That’s a pretty bright-line standard.”
Meeker, who had started work at Heritage the month before the Oct. 16 drill, resigned the following week. She seeks unspecified damages for unreasonable seizure, false imprisonment, excessive force, deprivation of liberty without due process and civil assault.
Greisen said she believed criminal conduct occurred in the incident, but Meeker and her attorneys decided to pursue the civil action.
The lawsuit names Heritage Park, its administrator Robert Baker, two other employees, the town of Carbondale, Police Chief Gene Schilling and Zimmerman.
Carbondale, which is insured for litigation through CIRSA, which provides a self-insurance pool for Colorado public entities, referred questions to Rice.
Heritage Park referred questions to Life Care, which is based in Tennessee. The company issued a statement attributed to Baker, saying, in part, “as part of our ongoing focus on safety, we conduct routine training drills to prepare for various scenarios such as fire and natural disasters.
“In October 2013, we conducted one of these emergency preparedness exercises in conjunction with the local police department. … Due to a pending lawsuit, we cannot provide further information but are working to resolve the situation.”
The statement provided to the Post Independent on Thursday omitted some comments included in a statement given to other media on Wednesday, including these sentences: “Unfortunately, the training exercise alarmed some at our facility. We have reassured everyone that the situation was safe and controlled.”
Company spokeswoman Leigh Atherton said the statement was “updated” and she could not elaborate because of the lawsuit.
Will Grandbois contributed to this report.