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First suit filed against University of Colorado in Aurora shooting

James Holmes in a September mugshot.
James Holmes in a September mugshot.Arapahoe County Sheriff via AP

The widow of an Aurora massacre victim has filed a lawsuit against the University of Colorado, claiming a school psychiatrist could have prevented the slaughter by having cops lock up student James Holmes after he "fantasized about killing a lot of people."

The federal case could be the first of several actions against the university, which received 11 notices of possible lawsuits from victims' families before a 180-day deadline for state filings expired this week.

"I believe any lawsuits would not be well-founded either legally or factually," university counsel Patrick O'Rourke said, adding that he could not comment further because of doctor-patient confidentiality.

The suit filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Denver by Chantel Blunk, wife of Navy veteran Jonathan Blunk, alleges that Dr. Lynne Fenton "knew that James Holmes was dangerous" after the grad student told her on June 11 that he wanted to kill.

"Fenton had a duty to use reasonable care to protect the public at large from James Holmes," the suit says.

Fenton notified a campus threat-assessment team about her concerns, but turned down a police officer's offer to arrest Holmes and put him under a 72-hour psychiatric hold, court papers say.

Blunk was one of 12 people killed when Holmes allegedly opened fire during a midnight screening of "The Dark Knight Rises" on July 20. The 26-year-old father of two died shielding another moviegoer from bullets.

It appears the claims in his widow's suit are based on published reports about Holmes' meeting with Fenton and the actions she took afterward, since much of the evidence in the case is still under wraps.

The suit doesn't specify damages except to say it's more than $75,000.

Tom Russell, a University of Denver law professor, said it would be "exceedingly difficult" to win a federal case since the plaintiff would have to show the school or Fenton committed "some systematic violation of a civil rights statute."

But Colorado has a strong governmental-immunity law that limits total damages to $600,000 for all plaintiffs, so it may not be worthwhile to sue in state court, Russell said.

It's unclear how many of the 11 notices the university has received will result in suits, but Russell said he thinks the chance of success of any potential suits is low.

Although what Holmes said to Fenton has not been made public because of doctor-client privilege, it appears that it was vague enough that the psychiatrist would not have been legally bound to act on the threat, Russell said.

Chantel Blunk, widow of Jonathan Blunk, shown on the left after a preliminary hearing for James Holmes this month.
Chantel Blunk, widow of Jonathan Blunk, shown on the left after a preliminary hearing for James Holmes this month.Ed Andrieski/AP

Holmes reportedly sent a notebook to Fenton that may contain more specifics, but since the psychiatrist didn't receive it until after the rampage, she can't be held liable for what's in it, Russell added.

"A lawsuit against the shooter himself is a winning lawsuit," the professor said. "But he has no assets."

Several families have also filed lawsuits against Cinemark, owner of the movie theater, which is set to reopen Thursday.

A judge has given prosecutors the go-ahead to put Holmes on trial, but he won't be arraigned until March. In the face of overwhelming evidence, he's expected to mount an insanity defense, which would remove doctor-patient privilege and reveal more about his dealings with Fenton.