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Civil lawsuits inevitable in Colorado shootings, lawyers say

6:22 AM, Jul 27, 2012   |    comments
AP
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The search for someone - besides shooting suspect James Holmes - to hold responsible for the Aurora, Colo., movie theater shootings almost inevitably will lead to civil lawsuits by victims and their families, lawyers say.

After tragedies such as this one, "we want to have the assurance that there was someone to blame and if that person had just not screwed up ... it would be OK to go to the theater," says Bill Kowalski, senior litigator at a Boulder, Colo., law firm.

He represented the Jefferson County School District in civil lawsuits filed after the 1999 Columbine High School shootings; cases against the district were dismissed.

Holmes is scheduled to appear Monday in Arapahoe County District Court to hear the formal charges against him. He is accused of opening fire July 20 during a midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rising, killing 12 people and wounding 58.

Lawsuits could name:

Cinemark Holdings, Inc., which operates the Century Aurora 16 where the shooting took place. Under Colorado law, businesses such as theaters must make their property safe under "conditions that you either knew of or should have known of," says Phil Harding, a Denver trial lawyer.

For example, lawyers could try to show that theater operators knew the door Holmes burst through had been used before for unauthorized entry and did nothing to prevent its use again, he says.

"Based on the facts that I know, I sure would hate to see the theater blamed for the acts of what's clearly an evil individual," says Denver lawyer Michael Milstein. Cinemark had no comment.

•The University of Colorado-Denver, which accepted delivery of packages Holmes had ordered and on Monday found an unopened package sent by Holmes to a faculty member.

Milstein says the university has immunity because it is a governmental institution. Kowalski says individual employees might be held accountable if "willful and wanton conduct" leading to negligence can be proved.

Warner Bros., the studio that made the Batman movie. Proving that movie violence provoked Holmes would be difficult, says Paul Smith, a Washington lawyer who successfully defended video game makers in a Columbine lawsuit and a 1997 school shooting in Paducah, Ky.

"While people try and they keep trying" to blame media content, "the prospects for success are very low" because of First Amendment protections of free speech, he says. Warner Bros. had no comment.

•Doctors who might have been treating Holmes for mental problems. "There are too many defenses," Kowalski says, noting that efforts to tie Columbine gunman Eric Harris' medication to his crimes failed.

Denver lawyer Laura Martinez says a successful case would have to prove that Holmes "told his doctors" he planned to commit the crimes of which he's accused.

Holmes can refuse to testify in his criminal case, Harding says, but can't avoid taking the stand in civil cases without risking a contempt of court citation that would lengthen any sentence he receives.

USA Today

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