The widow of a man killed in last year’s mass shooting in Aurora, Colorado has filed a lawsuit against the alleged gunman’s psychiatrist claiming she knew of his threats to harm others and failed to warn of the imminent danger. Issue: When is a psychiatrist obligated to warn the public of her client’s threats to the public? Lesson: Threats of imminent harm cannot be taken lightly and preventive measures should be taken despite the application of doctor-patient confidentiality.
The widow of Jonathan Blunk, who was killed in the July 2012 ambush in a Colorado movie theater, recently initiated a suit claiming that James Holmes’ psychiatrist did not notify authorities when she believed Holmes to be a risk to the community. Blunk was one of the 12 people who died of gunshot wounds when a masked gunman opened fire in the crowded movie theater. Dr. Lynne Fenton, a psychiatrist at the University of Colorado, counseled Holmes prior to the shooting.
Reportedly, Dr. Fenton contacted campus police prior to the shooting because she was concerned about comments Holmes made during therapy sessions. According to the suit, approximately 6 weeks prior to the shooting, Holmes told Dr. Fenton that he had fantasies about killing a lot of people. Court documents claim Dr. Fenton balked at the idea of placing Holmes on psychiatric hold when asked by police. Reportedly, Dr. Fenton did not identify the name of her patient citing confidentiality issues. Campus police did not follow up with Holmes directly.
In order for Dr. Fenton to break the physician-patient confidentiality, her concerns must have been considerable. Under Colorado law, a psychiatrist can legally breach a pledge of confidentiality with a patient if she becomes aware of a serious and imminent threat that their patient might cause harm to others.
This and similar suits represent a recent trend of medical malpractice/failure to warn litigation asserted against mental healthcare providers. This matters present a fact-sensitive inquiry into the nature of the communication between doctor and patient and whether there was sufficient grounds to warrant a breach of confidentiality. Given the hindsight driven application of these types of cases – i.e. there would be no lawsuit if not for a tragic result – the treating doctor is always in a difficult situation. That being the case, mental healthcare providers should be wary of an increased risk of liability when treating a patient who makes threats of harming others.