Guns / Firearms, Murder, Violence

Could The University Of Colorado Face Civil Liability Over the Aurora Movie Theater Shooting?

We mentioned yesterday morning that James Holmes, the accused Batman movie theater shooter, had been seeing a psychiatrist at the University of Colorado, Denver, who was so alarmed by his behavior that she contacted the University’s “Threat Assessment” team.

Following that revelation, commentators are now asking if the University of Colorado could face duty to warn liability in the wake of the shooting. Let the hypothesizing begin…

Outlets such as Bloomberg have already mostly shot down, in great detail, the chance of any successful liability claim against the movie theater where 12 people were killed and 58 more were injured. But what about claims against the University of Colorado, which ostensibly could have had a clue that Holmes allegedly planned to harm someone? From the Christian Science Monitor:

In the wake of the tragic 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech, where 32 students were killed, universities around the country set up committees to assess whether a student represented a threat to the campus community.

One of those schools was the University of Colorado, Denver, which established a Behavioral Evaluation and Threat Assessment (BETA) group in 2010.

On Thursday, the BETA group found itself under the microscope after news reports saying that one its members, a psychiatrist and university professor, had phoned some of the group to discuss one of her patients, a graduate student named James Holmes.

The question on everyone’s mind is, did the doctor or someone else at the school have a responsibility to alert the police about the potential danger posed by Holmes? For crying out loud. I feel like I’ve seen this before, quite recently. Yeah, I definitely, definitely have. Legal experts are already chiming in about how actions taken against the university could turn out.

On one hand, you have the “not my student, not my problem” angle:

“The university has a legal duty to protect its students, not the world at large,” says Barry Pollack, a defense lawyer and partner in the Washington law firm of Miller & Chevalier. “If they get information about someone who is not a student, it is not in their purview to do anything about it.”

But it also depends on when Holmes was making the alleged threats and what the exact conversations were. These facts have been kept tightly under wraps so far:

“If a student says they are going to kill someone on Monday but drops out of school on Tuesday, there is a duty to take reasonable steps,” says Kenneth Simons, a professor of law at Boston University School of Law.

Colorado law requires doctors to notify police if there is a specific threat to a specific individual or group. And that only makes me more curious about what he and Dr. Lynne Fenton discussed. What type of discussions led her to contact the university and not police? (The university didn’t contact law enforcement either.)

(Somewhat tangentially, it’s worth reading this New York Times piece, which extensively details the legal issues that will probably be raised in Holmes’s criminal trial. You should also check out this remarkably sensitive radio essay from WBEZ.)

Professor John Banzhaf says it is only a matter of time until victims’ families (who may face steep medical bills, among other issues) start filing claims against any involved organizations with resources, and Pollack said it’s likely there’ll be lots of quick settlements:

He anticipates the university will try to settle with the families as quickly as possible. That’s what ultimately happened at Virginia Tech. “There was the option of getting compensation rather than suing,” he says. “The vast majority of the families opted to go for compensation versus lawsuits.”

No matter how you shake it, it is tragic. It’s too bad that no matter who, if anyone, could possibly have prevented the killings, it’s too late now, and no settlement will bring back those who were lost.

Colorado shooting: If a school is warned about a student, what must it do? [Christian Science Monitor]
Therapists walk fine line in reporting violent plans [CNN Health]
Colorado Attack Victims May Have Little Chance In Suits [Bloomberg]

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