James Holmes’ Psychiatrist Facing Lawsuits

The psychiatrist that treated the Aurora theatre shooter could be sued for negligently failing to take action to prevent the massacre.  Fourteen people have filed papers indicating they plan on suing Dr. Lynne Fenton, who treated James Holmes up until a month prior to the shooting.  One of the lawsuits, filed the widow of a man slain in the incident, claims that Fenton knew Holmes was dangerous but failed to take a reasonable duty of care to the public at large to prevent them from harm.

Fenton is a psychiatrist at the University of Colorado Denver, where Holmes was a doctoral student in neuroscience.  She contacted campus police after her last meeting with Holmes, but declined to elaborate as to what had her concerned.  One of the lawsuits filed alleges that a police officer asked Fenton whether Holmes should be placed on psychiatric hold for 72 hours, but that Fenton rejected that suggestion.

Holding psychiatrists responsible for the actions of their patients would represent an expansion of the tort of negligence.  There are a  variety of policy reasons why courts may want to avoid this precedent.  While physician-patient privilege (commonly known as doctor-patient confidentiality) is not legally protected in American courts, Dr. Fenton would still be violating a code of practice by testifying about her sessions with Holmes.

Secondly, holding a psychiatrist responsible for the actions of their patients could expose psychiatrists to unlimited liability.  As a matter of course, psychiatrists treat people who may have tendencies to a variety of a destructive behaviours.  They are not tasked with the control or policing of the individual.  Introducing liability would mean that psychiatrists could be held responsible for any of the behaviours of their patients.  This could lead to psychiatrists avoiding treating patients who might need it most, as doctors try to protect themselves by refusing treatment to potentially dangerous individuals.

It is unclear what the lawsuits would have had Fenton do to prevent the shooting, but damages sought range from $100,000 to $50,000,000.


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