A lucky few find their passion in a single moment determining who they are, what their career will be and what they will do with it. For Tom Metier, founder of the Metier Law Firm, that moment wasn’t a winning touchdown, a book, or a college course — it was when he was hit by a car on his motorcycle.
Laying injured in a hospital bed, alone in an unfamiliar town, he knew what to do. “That developed a passion in me to go into law school and pursue trial work,” Metier said.
Metier, throughout his 35-year career, has received many accolades and is currently serving as the president of the Academy of Truck Accident Lawyers for 2020. Although his firm is mostly known for handling cases involving injuries that stem from auto collisions, that expertise does lead to other types of work as well. The firm has a practice that focuses on brain injuries and serious cases where people have life-altering injuries, whether they are burns, amputations or paralysis.
Recently, Metier and Galen Trine-McMahan of Metier Law Firm and Cheryl Trine of the Trine Law Firm prosecuted a case involving a claim of deprivation of civil rights against Douglas County, Southwest Correctional Medical Group Companies Inc. and various other individuals.
Kevin Hartwell suffered continuous seizures for more than seven hours after he was detained in the Douglas County jail. While detained, Hartwell disclosed he had an epileptic seizure disorder. After he was placed into a cell, Hartwell began to go into active seizure.
Jail medical staff were alerted to Hartwell’s condition, but despite his signs, miscommunication and a suspicion that Hartwell was faking symptoms led to inadequate care as Hartwell experienced seizure after seizure. This has resulted in long-term adverse consequences to his health and control of his seizures, Metier said.
Douglas County contracted health care through SCMGC, a private jail health care provider. Metier said it purports to have a physician on premises but, instead, there were several nurses at the jail who were not trained to recognize epileptic seizure activity. Further, the health staff refused to provide medical treatment or even an examination. Multiple nurses had opportunities to assist, Metier said, but they were informed Hartwell was faking seizures to obtain better treatment.
“It is almost impossible to fake a seizure,” Metier said. During epileptic seizure, an area of the brain misfires, spreading across the brain, as electrical synapses fire off one after another in what’s called a “fire on the brain.” If a seizure is not treated within 20 minutes, it can become life threatening.
Communication between jail medical staff and the physician had several steps. The process Metier described involved on-site nurses calling an off-site doctor for direction on how to proceed with medical situations. “He was ill informed what the condition was by the nurses,” Metier said. The doctor’s deposition stated there was no recognizable seizure activity.
As the seven hours of seizures progressed, jail guards became increasingly concerned and finally raised the alarm on the situation. The actions of the guards saved Hartwell’s life, Metier said.
The entire event was video recorded. However, significant videotapes and facts were hidden, Metier said. The tapes were discovered and forced to be turned over. Once recovered, the tapes showed, at times, Hartwell’s seizures were directly observed by health personnel who walked into the cell, watched and left.
These tapes were shown to the physician. “He said words to the effect of, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s clearly status epilepticus,’” Metier said. Status epilepticus is defined as a seizure which lasts over five minutes, or two seizures without full consciousness gained between them, according to the Epilepsy Foundation.
The case ended shortly before trial by a resolution between the parties for a confidential financial amount.
However, Metier’s work did not end with the resolution. Instead, he, Trine-McMahan and his firm are conducting “guerilla warfare” to train prison personnel to recognize epileptic seizures. Working with the Epilepsy Foundation of America and Dr. Mark Spitz, a Denver based seizure specialist, the firm will finance an educational video program to train prison personnel to recognize epileptic seizures immediately and when to seek out proper medical assistance, he mentioned.
“We want to have some of this to be a peer-to-peer statement of what this is, what we’re up against, and what we as human beings need to recognize what an epileptic seizure looks like — and tell the difference of faking something,” Metier said.
If the program can be fully distributed, then prisons and jails will not have an excuse of not knowing the situation. “Our intent is to try to save lives and the health of prisoners,” Metier said, adding that this was a national issue.
Like the Douglas County case, Metier feels his other cases do not end with the final ruling or a settlement. In PTSD cases, for example, the effects can last far beyond the incident. One past case involved a female mine worker who was injured when a bus crashed through a row of stopped cars in a construction zone. Though the accident happened five years ago, every night Metier’s client wakes up and relives the drive over.
In another case, as part of the settlement, a brain-injured client sat down with the defendant and described her feelings and experiences. The defendant was not required to speak or respond, but it was important for his client to know they were heard.
“What inevitably happens in those situations is that there is a mutual understanding as to what happened, and there’s a real healing process that goes on,” Metier said. “But these are the intangibles and the real human elements of practicing law and are, in my personal experience, the most valuable.”
“Now why is that so important to me — I’ve had a lot of personal experiences where it gives me a look at what that is like. I’ve had a child die, I’ve been involved in collisions myself, the motorcycle — but every day I get to talk with people and try and help them,” he said.
And, despite how his career started, Metier still enjoys a good motorcycle ride. He and his firm are instrumental in several large charity motorcycle events around Denver and the West, including the annual Realities For Children Poker Run in Ft. Collins.
“I’m extremely privileged to help people every day,” Metier said. “It doesn’t always make everything alright, but it gives a chance to do what we can while we’re on God’s earth for the time.”
— Avery Martinez