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Therapist Liability and the Colorado Theater Shooting

Should the school psychiatrist who worked with alleged shooter James Holmes be held legally responsible for failing to prevent Holmes from engaging in the attack by notifying the police? How about the university where Holmes was a student, should they be held liable?

According to the Denver Post, Holmes’ psychiatrist at the University of Colorado-Denver contacted the university’s Behavioral Evaluation and Threat Assessment team about Holmes, but that the matter was not pursued because he began the process of withdrawing from the institution. This Christian Science Monitor article discussing potential legal liability notes that Colorado requires doctors to inform the police if a patient makes a specific threat against an individual. These types of laws recognize that psychiatrists have a duty to protect individuals threatened by their clients. If a psychiatrist fails to warn the police or the threatened individual, and the client carries out the threatened harm, then the psychiatrist can be sued for monetary damages. Many of these laws stem from Tarasoff v. Regents of the University of California, a case from 1976 where a college student killed an ex-girlfriend after telling his psychologist that he was going to commit the murder.

As more details become public about the relationship between Holmes and his psychiatrist one crucial element will be the exact communications made by Holmes. Did he actually make a specific threat to shoot people in a movie theater? Why did the psychiatrist contact the Behavioral Evaluation and Threat Assessment team? Was it based on specific statements or a general view that the person may be a danger to himself or others? A person can seem dangerous without any overt, specific threats being made. What if the psychiatrist felt that Holmes was probably not a danger but contacted the Behavioral Evaluation and Threat Assessment team to get an additional opinion? How should the law deal with these liability issues without resorting to 20/20 hindsight?

On a related note, I discussed some of the legal issues regarding the insanity defense and the determination of a defendant’s fitness to stand trial in an earlier blog post. These issues have been discussed further in this New York Times article.

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Todd Hiestand is an Associate Professor of Criminal Justice. All posts by Professor Hiestand should not be considered as advertisements for the solicitation of legal services nor should you consider any post or comment to be legal advice that you should rely upon in a specific legal matter.


  • Sermons Online Monday, 05 November 2012

    That accident impacted so many people in a terrifying ways. Hoping good for everyone involved but also for Holmes who seems to be lost with who he is.

  • Dianne Thursday, 10 January 2013

    This article got me thinking, our world is full of violence and it's sad to see that people are killed in shootings in which the shooter is not totally their self. I don't quite understand the reason behind the shooting.

  • kesion Friday, 25 January 2013

    You wrote something that people could understand and made the subject intriguing for everyone. I'm saving this for future use.I will recomend it to my friends.

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Guest Thursday, 24 July 2014

About This Blog

OhBehave is the outreach blog of the MNU Behavioral Sciences Department. In matters related to Psychology, Sociology, and Criminal Justice you will find information and updates geared to keep students and professionals abreast of the latest research, professional developments, and important trends in each field. As we seek a life of purpose, the material presented in this blog is meant to enhance and deepen our understanding of people and our world so that we may intentionally reflect the grace and peace of our creator.