DENVER (Reuters) - The widow of a U.S. Navy veteran killed in the shooting rampage at a Colorado movie theater has sued a psychiatrist who treated accused gunman James Holmes, saying he should have been held in a mental health facility to protect the public.
The lawsuit, filed in Denver on Monday, is the first shooting-related suit against psychiatrist Dr. Lynne Fenton and her employer, the University of Colorado at Denver, according to college spokeswoman Jacque Montgomery.
Holmes, a former neuroscience doctoral student at the University of Colorado, is accused of killing 12 people and wounding 58 others at the July screening of a Batman movie in one of the worst cases of U.S. gun violence in recent years.
Chantel Blunk, whose 26-year-old husband Jonathan Blunk was killed in the shooting in a Denver suburb said in the suit that Fenton knew Holmes “was dangerous” and had a “duty to use reasonable care to protect the public at large” from him.
Colorado media, including the Denver Post, reported last month that Fenton rejected a law enforcement offer to involuntarily confine Holmes for 72 hours after he told her six weeks before the shooting that he fantasized about killing “a lot of people.”
“Fenton was presented with the opportunity to use such reasonable care when the Colorado University Police offered to apprehend James Holmes on a psychiatric hold,” the lawsuit stated. “Fenton breached her duty to use reasonable care.”
Fenton’s attorney declined to comment on the lawsuit, which brings a claim of negligence and wrongful death against Fenton and names the University of Colorado as a defendant because it employed her.
“The university has nothing but sympathy for the victims, but in our initial review of this case the university believes the lawsuit is not well founded legally or factually,” Montgomery said, on behalf of the University of Colorado.
The lawsuit does not specify the amount of damages Blunk is seeking but says it is over $75,000. Jonathan Blunk, a U.S. Navy veteran and the father of two young children, was separated from his wife when he died in the shooting in Aurora, Colorado.
Prosecutors have depicted Holmes as a young man whose once promising academic career was in tatters as he failed graduate school oral board exams in June and one of his professors suggested he may not have been a good fit for his Ph.D. program.
They have said that in the lead-up to the shooting, Holmes lost his access to the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus after making unspecified threats to a professor on June 12, then began a voluntary withdrawal from his program.
Fenton has testified she treated Holmes, 25, more than a month before the shooting and that her professional relationship with him ended in mid-June. Court documents unsealed last year said the relationship was severed after Holmes made threats toward a university psychiatrist, whose name was redacted.
The New York Times and other media organizations have said that Fenton reported her concerns about Holmes to a police officer and a campus threat assessment team. A 2011 university document showed she was a member of the campus threat team.
Arapahoe County District Judge William Sylvester ruled last week that there was probable cause to try Holmes in the case, and outside legal experts say they expect his lawyers to mount an insanity defense. An arraignment has been set for March 12.
Reporting by Keith Coffman in Denver, Writing by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Andrew Hay