Psychiatrist Facing Lawsuit over "Dark Knight" Massacre

In the aftermath of a shooting rampage in a Colorado movie theatre that left twelve people dead and fifty-eight people injured last July, the widow of one of the victims is suing the psychiatrist who treated the suspected shooter.   In filing the lawsuit against psychiatrist Lynne Fenton and the University of Colorado, Chantel Blunk maintains that Dr. Fenton was negligent in her treatment of the suspected shooter, James Eagan Holmes.   Holmes, a graduate student in neuroscience at the University of Colorado Anschutz Campus before dropping in June reportedly been displaying bizarre behaviour and making threats of potential violence despite having no previous criminal history.

On July 20, 2012, James Holmes entered the Century movie in Aurora, Colorado which was then running a midnight screening of  The Dark Knight Rises.   Holmes, who had reportedly dyed his hair orange and wore makeup similar to the Joker movie character in the previous movie, strategically propped open an emergency door before returning wearing commando gear, including a bulletproof vest.   After setting off gas grenades, he then began systematically firing the weapons he had been carrying.   Police arrived at the scene shortly afterward and Holmes was arrested next to his car with no resistance.    He is currrently being held without bail and is facing more than 150 charges including multiple counts of murder and attempted murder and has yet to offer a plea in the case.   While he has made several suicide attempts since his arrest, he is currently considered fit to stand trial.

According to the complaint laid against Dr. Fenton, Holmes had reportedly stated that he fantasized about "killing a lot of people" while under her care.    Despite concerns about her patient's potential for violence, Dr. Fenton failed to place him under a psychiatric hold though she advised campus police about her concerns.    In her complaint, Chantel Blunk claimed that "the psychiatrist knew that James Holmes was dangerous" and "had a duty to use reasonable care to protect the public at large."    Under Colorado law, a psychotherapist has a duty to breach confidentiality and notify authorities if a significant threat to a third party exists (based on the 1970s Tarasoff Decision) although there is no specific obligation to issue warnings to potential victims.    Colorado statutes also provide immunity from civil claims resulting from patient violence except when the patient provides the therapist with a threat of imminent physical violence against a specific person or persons. 

In responding to the complaint, a representative of the University of Colorado stated that the university "has great sympathy for the victims of the Aurora theater shooting and their families.  But in our initial review of the case, the university believes this lawsuit is not well-founded, legally or factually."    The lawsuit may be only the first of at least eleven other possible lawsuits from victims' families though the deadline for filing has since expired.


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