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University of Colorado could be target of civil suits in mass shooting, says legal expert

University of Colorado

The University of Colorado’s failure to act after a school psychiatrist informed it of her concerns about suspected movie theater massacre shooter James Holmes, could make it a target of civil lawsuits, said one legal expert.

Holmes is in custody after he allegedly entered a crowded movie theater in Aurora, CO, on July 20, and opened fire with a semiautomatic rifle, shotgun and handgun, killing a dozen people and wounding almost 60.

Reportedly, University of Colorado psychiatrist Lynne Fenton was so concerned about potential violence by Holmes, who was both her student and patient, she warned the university’s Behavioral Analysis and Threat Assessment [BETA] unit. Reportedly, the unit didn’t take action or meet after Fenton’s warnings. That failure, according to George Washington University public interest law professor John Banzhaf, “substantially” increases the probability that the university will be sued by victims of the massacre and it could also be forced to settle the law suits, as universities have in other shooting cases.

The BETA team, according to the school Web site, has staff members from various CU departments with specific expertise who play a key role in dealing with assessing potential threatening behavior. The university said the team was formed to provide an early assessment of the threats, to hopefully take some kind of action before a threat materialized. However, it said the action it takes depends on a variety of factors. Reportedly, Fenton warned the team weeks before the shooting, the team never took any other followup action, like contacting Holmes, alerting appropriate authorities.

Reports speculate that the team didn’t act because it may not have had jurisdiction over Holmes, as he was in the process of withdrawing from the university.

The victims and their families, many facing enormous medical costs, are likely to sue any entity involved that might have enough resources and/or insurance to pay the damages, according to Banzhaf. Juries are likely to be sympathetic to the plaintiffs, especially in light of the many damaging facts which have already come out, and any yet to be discovered, Banzhaf suggested.

The University of Colorado said the BETA team is a component of the school’s newly formed University Emergency Management Operations Group (EMOG). BETA, it said, is aimed at providing resources and information to faculty, staff or student community members who are confronted with individuals who may be threatening, disruptive, or otherwise problematic. It provides guidance and consultation and may make referrals to appropriate campus or community resources.

The team, said the university, consists of representatives from its Counseling Center, faculty Development Center, Office of Student Life, Legal Counsel, Human Resources, Student Conduct Office, Risk Management, Student Life, Student Services, Ombuds, Disability Services, Campus Police and Student Housing.

The Web site stresses that the team isn’t an administrative, treatment, or disciplinary body and its purpose is to provide support, information and referrals to those dealing with threatening or disruptive situations.