Blogs by MidAmerica Nazarene University staff and faculty.
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.