If a psychiatrist believes her client might become violent, is she obligated to try to prevent that person from hurting people?A Colorado court will have to answer that question now that the widow of a man killed by James Holmes has sued the alleged killer’s psychiatrist.
Chantel Blunk filed the suit against psychiatrist Lynne Fenton, the University of Colorado — Denver, and five unnamed defendants, The Denver Post reported Tuesday.
Blunk’s husband, Jonathan, was one of a dozen people Holmes allegedly killed during the midnight premiere of “The Dark Knight Rises” at an Aurora, Colo. movie theatre last summer.
After the shooting, allegations emerged that six weeks before the massacre Fenton had declined to put Holmes under a 72-hour psychiatric hold after he told her he fantasized about killing “a lot of people.”
Blunk claims Fenton was negligent because she “rejected the idea” of putting him in a hold.
“Fenton was presented with the opportunity to use … reasonable care when the Colorado University police offered to apprehend James Holmes and place him on a psychiatric hold,” the suit stated.
But Yale professor of psychiatry Dr. Howard Zonana told Business Insider that Fenton only had an obligation to commit Holmes if she believed he was an immediate threat.
“The question is whether or not she was using reasonable judgement at that point when she decided that he wasn’t [a threat],” Zonana told Business Insider. Now, the court will have to examine how far into the future Fenton should have looked when trying to determine what Holmes might do, he added.
More generally, a psychiatrist’s behaviour with potentially violent patients is governed by a 1970s ruling from the California Supreme Court called the Tarasoff Decision.
The decision has actually been written twice. In 1974, the court said psychiatrists have the duty to warn potential victims if they believe their patients pose a threat.
A year later, however, the court ruled psychiatrists only have a duty to take steps to prevent harm but don’t have a specific obligation to issue warnings to potential victims.
Most states have since adopted some variation of that decision.
Colorado statutes hold that a psychiatrist “shall not be liable for damages in any civil action for failure to warn or protect any person against a mental health patient’s violent behaviour, and any such person shall not be held civilly liable for failure to predict such violent behaviour, except where the patient has communicated to the mental health care provider a serious threat of imminent physical violence against a specific person or persons.”
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