Michigan Pays $13M Over Hospital's Surprise Active Shooter Drill

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services has agreed to pay $13 million to resolve five lawsuits against a children’s psychiatric hospital for the panic that ensued during a surprise active shooter drill.

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ByAnjelica Cappellino, J.D.


Published on March 12, 2024

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What Happened?

On December 21, 2022, the Hawthorn Center a state-run facility in Northville Township, a suburb of Detroit, conducted an active shooter drill. However, its 50 patients and 110 employees, including psychologists, social workers, physicians, nurses, and office staff, were unaware that the drill was not a real event. The drill began when a front desk worker was ordered to announce over the loudspeaker that there were armed intruders in the building. The hospital ordered two maintenance workers to walk through the building to play the role of active shooters, but the workers were unaware that the staff and children did not know it was a drill. Employees responded by barricading doors and hiding the children, all while calling 911 and texting messages to family and loved ones.

Because law enforcement was unaware of the drill as well, they responded to the 911 call. About 50 police officers and state troopers, armed with automatic weapons and armor, gathered outside the hospital. When the two maintenance workers left the building, they were confronted by armed police and detained. The ordeal lasted about an hour.

The Lawsuit

In April 2023, the first lawsuit was filed by six employees and the parents of two of the children who had attended the facility. Four additional lawsuits soon followed and the five lawsuits were consolidated into the case David Horein et al. v. Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, 23-000063, in the State of Michigan Court of Claims, which hears cases brought against the state and its agencies.

The lawsuits all claimed constitutional and tort violations stemming from the trauma of the active shooter drill. Specifically, the lawsuit alleged violations under Sections 11, 16, and 17 of the Michigan Constitution, which deal with unreasonable searches and seizures, cruel and unusual punishment, and deprivation of liberty without due process.

The son of the lead plaintiff in the case was 11 years old at the time of the drill. According to the lawsuit, he was given shampoo and soap to protect himself.

Mediation began shortly after the first lawsuit was filed.

The Settlement

On January 31, 2024, a settlement agreement, which is pending a judge’s approval, was executed between the parties to settle all five lawsuits. As part of the agreement, the Hawthorn Center did not admit to any wrongdoing. The $13 million settlement is divided into three funds – approximately $2.9 million will go to a patient compensation fund and $5.8 million will go to staff compensation. About $4.3 million will go toward costs and attorneys’ fees.

Hospital staff seeking medical expenses will need to undergo psychological examinations by a Trauma Assessment Team of two Boston College doctors. The doctors will then subject reports to an assigned special master overseeing the settlement funds. The funds will be disbursed in proportion to the psychological impact on each plaintiff.

The patient funds will be paid out differently and based on the individualized circumstances of each plaintiff, including whether they are a minor. The fund will be allocated equally but each class representative will receive an additional $5,000.

Per an appendix to the agreement, three trusts will be set up for the patients – one for medical treatment for special needs patients, one for investments, and one to manage and administer funds for those who are not receiving means-tested government benefits.

The plaintiffs are represented by Robin B. Wagner, Michael L. Pitt, and Beth M. Rivers of Pitt McGehee Palmer Bonnani & River P.C., as well as Michele P. Fuller of Michigan Law Center PLLC. The special subclass is represented by Nancy K. Chinonis of Cline Cline & Griffen. In its motion seeking settlement approval, plaintiffs’ counsel stated that: "While plaintiffs are confident in the merits of their case, they also recognize that there are significant concerns regarding the expense, complexity, and duration of further litigation, which would involve costly electronic discovery, depositions, and lengthy trial proceedings.” In addition, "[t]he proposed settlement achieves a substantial recovery for the plaintiff class members while avoiding the expense, complexity, and extended duration of further litigation.”

In a statement issued by attorney Robin B. Wagner, "[t]his was an appalling breach of trust by the Michigan officials responsible for the care and safety of the patients at the Hawthorn Center — all children with severe psychological and neurological conditions — and the staff and employees working to care for them and keep them safe…We are pleased to have reached such a meaningful settlement without having to have our clients endure protracted litigation.” She added that "[t]here are many people who suffered significant trauma from this ill-advised 'drill' and this settlement will help them recover."

The defendant is represented by Neil A. Giovanatti, Bryan W. Beach, and Ticara D. Hendley of the Michigan Department of Attorney Generals’ Health, Education, and Family Services Division. A representative for the defendant released a statement after the settlement, agreeing that the settlement was best for all parties involved. "We regret that our patients, staff, and community were negatively affected by the unfortunate incident in December 2022…We commend our staff who worked quickly to engage law enforcement partners and the responding agencies who worked to resolve the situation." Following the incident, MDHHS offered critical incident stress management to its staff, including behavioral health services, noting that state psychiatric hospitals are required to "conduct a hazard vulnerability analysis at least every two years to identify potential emergencies, including active shooter exercises." "MDHHS is working on improved training and exercise processes as part of updating its emergency operations policies," the representative added.

Expert Specialties Involved

Per the settlement agreement, medical experts are necessary to establish the extent of each plaintiff’s psychological injuries. The agreement includes statements from medical professionals in regard to the methodology that was used to evaluate those impacted by the drill. Instruments such as the International Trauma Questionnaire and Trauma History Questionnaire were used to examine the experiences of the participants.

Per the curriculum vitae of the professionals who conducted the study, subspecialties in psychiatric mental health and trauma are of particular importance in this case.

About the author

Anjelica Cappellino, J.D.

Anjelica Cappellino, J.D.

Anjelica Cappellino, Esq., a New York Law School alumna and psychology graduate from St. John’s University, is an accomplished attorney at Meringolo & Associates, P.C. She specializes in federal criminal defense and civil litigation, with significant experience in high-profile cases across New York’s Southern and Eastern Districts. Her notable work includes involvement in complex cases such as United States v. Joseph Merlino, related to racketeering, and U.S. v. Jimmy Cournoyer, concerning drug trafficking and criminal enterprise.

Ms. Cappellino has effectively represented clients in sentencing preparations, often achieving reduced sentences. She has also actively participated in federal civil litigation, showcasing her diverse legal skill set. Her co-authored article in the Albany Law Review on the Federal Sentencing Guidelines underscores her deep understanding of federal sentencing and its legal nuances. Cappellino's expertise in both trial and litigation marks her as a proficient attorney in federal criminal and civil law.

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