Widow of Batman Shooting Victim Files Lawsuit Against Killer's Psychiatrist
The widow of a victim killed during the July 20th shooting in an Aurora Colorado movie theater has filed a lawsuit against the psychiatrist who treated suspected gunman James Holmes prior to the attacks. Chantel Blunk, widowed wife of Jonathan Blunk, filed the suit against Dr. Lynne Fenton and the University of Colorado in Denver alleging the psychiatrist failed to adequately warn authorities of Holmes’ violent and murderous fantasies.
On June 11th, a month and a half before the shooting, James Holmes told Dr. Fenton in one of their sessions that he “fantasized about killing a lot of people.” Dr. Fenton, a psychiatrist at University of Colorado in Denver, alerted the university Behavioral Evaluation and Threat Assessment team, and took no further action. When questioned by police about whether she recommended Holmes be placed in a psychiatric hold, Dr. Fenton said no. Dr. Fenton’s professional relationship with Holmes ended shortly thereafter, sometime in mid-June.
Allegations in the Lawsuit
Ms. Blunk, through her attorneys, alleges that Dr. Fenton failed in her duty to warn authorities and take appropriate action to detain Holmes when she had the opportunity. Citing Dr. Fenton’s dismissal of the idea to issue a psychiatric hold, the lawsuit claims that Dr. Fenton did not use “reasonable care” that a psychiatrist in her position should have used when presented with confession of murderous fantasies. In alleging failure to act, the suit argues that had Dr. Fenton taken more action against Holmes, the shooting would not have taken place.
The details of the lawsuit have not yet been made clear, but sources indicate that the plaintiff is requesting over $75,000. Additionally, UC Denver has received email notifications of 11 similar lawsuits developing. Given the potential volume of cases, Ms. Blunk’s action is not likely to be decided for some time, allowing a court to potentially consolidate similar suits.
Does the Suit Have Merit?
The factual allegations in the lawsuit, if true, certainly suggest that Dr. Fenton was aware of Holmes’ potential for a violent and tragic attack. However, projecting what Dr. Fenton could have done, and whether or not she could have prevented the massacre, requires a more substantial leap to questionable conclusions. To begin, a psychiatric hold in Colorado only lasts 72 hours before the patient is reevaluated in front of a judge, and there is no guarantee or suggestion that Holmes would have been detained longer had Dr. Fenton suggested that course of action. Dr. Fenton last spoke with Holmes over a month before the attack, so any action she recommended would not have detained him long enough.
Further, any time a lawsuit attempts to demonstrate that a failure to act caused a harm, the plaintiff faces an uphill battle. Most civil lawsuits are built on a defendant’s action – battery, breaking a contract, theft, etc. These types of cases have a string of evidence that demonstrates a clear cause of harm because there is an action taken by the defendant. When a plaintiff alleges that failure to act caused harm, they are asking judges and juries to believe their projections of how an event would have been different. Although possible, this type of suit is much more difficult to prove because there is inherent uncertainty in the claim.
In the aftermath of a tragedy, lawsuits often attempt to identify parties who had an opportunity to prevent the event, but failed to do so. In this case lawsuits against Dr. Fenton and lawsuits against the movie theater will work their way through the court system, and appropriate blame accordingly. While some of these suits will have more merit then others, each provides a learning opportunity, allowing others to adjust behavior in hopes of preventing similar tragedies in the future.