To Sue an Almost Assassin’s Therapist

A pencil rests on top of a blank notebook page.
James Brady, Timothy McCarthy and Thomas Delahanty in 1983 sued the psychiatrist who had been treating John Hinckley Jr. at the time of his attempted assassination of former Pres. Ronald Reagan. / Photo by Jan Kahánek on Unsplash.

It’s not entirely unusual for the public or individuals to file lawsuits after a public or mass shooting. They may sue gun manufacturers for marketing tactics, or police or law enforcement over the way a preliminary warning or emergency situation was handled. But it’s more rare that individuals sue others for assassination attempts – or the attempted assassin’s psychiatrist. 

But that did happen in Colorado in 1983 following John Hinckley Jr.’s attempted assassination of former Pres. Ronald Reagan. Three Colorado plaintiffs were all shot and seriously injured during the incident. 

James Brady, Timothy McCarthy and Thomas Delahanty sued the psychiatrist who had been treating Hinckley at the time of the attempted assassination. Brady, McCarthy and Delahanty claimed Dr. John Hopper Jr. was “negligent in examining, diagnosing, and treating Hinckley in conformity with reasonable standards of psychiatric care,” according to a 1983 court opinion from the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado.

“According to the complaint, Hinckley was brought to Dr. Hopper in late October, 1980, by Hinckley’s parents because the parents were concerned about their son’s behavior, including a purported suicide attempt by drug overdose,” the opinion noted. Brady, McCarthy and Delahanty alleged Hopper was negligent in his professional assessment finding Hinckley wasn’t “seriously ill,” according to the district court opinion.

According to court records, Hopper prescribed Hinckley “valium and biofeedback therapy,” while also recommending to Hinckley’s parents that he “be on his own” by the end of March 1981. By taking that route with Hinckley’s treatment, Brady, McCarthy and Delehanty asserted Hopper aggravated Hinckley’s condition and made him more dangerous, “thereby creating an unreasonable risk of harm to others.”

Brady, McCarthy and Delehanty alleged “Hopper knew or should have known that Hinckley was a danger to himself or others,” and said he “either possessed or had access to, information which would have indicated that Hinckley identified with the assassin in the movie ‘Taxi Driver’; that he was collecting books and articles on political assassination; and that Hinckley possessed guns and ammunition.”

During the course of Hopper’s treatment, Hinckley’s parents became increasingly concerned with his condition, according to the court document, and recommended to Hopper that Hinckley be hospitalized. But Hopper disagreed with the hospitalization recommendation and said “treatment [should] continue on an outpatient basis.”

“The rest of Hinckley’s strange story is well known,” the court opinion noted. Hinckley left Denver in March 1981 to go to Washington, D.C. and attempted to assassinate Reagan, shooting and injuring others in the process. 

Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity and spent around 30 years in St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington where he received medical and psychiatric care. He was released into the custody of his mother in 2016. His mother has since died and Hinckley was granted an unconditional release.

Brady, McCarthy and Delehanty asserted “the prescription of valium and biofeedback therapy, coupled with the advice that Hinckley’s parents ‘cut him off’, aggravated Hinckley’s condition and actually contributed to his dangerous propensity.” The plaintiffs also asserted Hopper should have consulted with another psychiatrist about his treatment plan for Hinckley and Hopper “should have taken steps to have Hinckley confined.” Brady, McCarthy and Delehanty alleged Hopper should have warned Hinckley’s parents and “law enforcement officials of Hinckley’s potential for political assassination.”

Hopper argued “the duty to control the violent acts of another does not arise absent specific threats directed to a reasonably identifiable victim.” He referenced a 1976 case out of California, Tarasoff v. Regents of University of California. Hopper also referenced a 1982 decision in Hasenei v. United States from the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland.

The court opined a “requirement of foreseeability … led numerous courts to conclude that a therapist or others cannot be held liable for injuries inflicted upon third persons absent specific threats to a readily identifiable victim.” 

“Unless a patient makes specific threats, the possibility that he may inflict injury on another is vague, speculative, and a matter of conjecture,” the opinion noted. “However, once the patient verbalizes his intentions and directs his threats to identifiable victims, then the possibility of harm to third persons becomes foreseeable, and the therapist has a duty to protect those third persons from the threatened harm.”

The question the court needed to answer was if there was “a foreseeable risk that Hinckley would inflict the harm that he did.” The court determined the allegations from Brady, McCarthy and Delehanty “were insufficient to create a legal duty on the part of Dr. Hopper to protect these plaintiffs from the specific harm.”

The court went on to note in its opinion that “To impose upon those in the counseling professions an ill-defined ‘duty to control’ would require therapists to be ultimately responsible for the actions of their patients. Such a rule would closely approximate a strict liability standard of care, and therapists would be potentially liable for all harm inflicted by persons presently or formerly under psychiatric treatment.”

“Plaintiffs’ injuries are severe and their damages extensive,” the opinion acknowledged. “Their plight as innocent bystanders to a bizarre and sensational assassination attempt is tragic and evokes great sympathy. Nevertheless, the question before the Court is whether Dr. Hopper can be subjected to liability as a matter of law for the injuries inflicted upon plaintiffs by Hinckley.” The court ultimately found “the question must be answered in the negative.” It granted Hopper’s motion to dismiss. 

A therapist’s duty to report is still a legal grey area of sorts. More recently, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled in 2014 in People v. Kailey “that if a mental health treatment provider believes that statements made by a patient during a therapy session threaten imminent physical violence against a specific person or persons — and accordingly trigger that provider’s legal ‘duty to warn’ under section 13-21-117(2), C.R.S. (2014) — the patient’s threatening statements are not protected by the psychologist-patient privilege.”

Under a 2022 state law, “A mental health provider is not liable for damages in any civil action for failure to warn or protect a specific person or persons” but that person’s duty to report is left more undefined. In the next paragraph of the law, it states only “When there is a duty to warn and protect under the provisions of paragraph (a) of this subsection (2), the mental health provider shall make reasonable and timely efforts to notify the person or persons, or the person or persons responsible for a specific location or entity, that is specifically threatened, as well as to notify an appropriate law enforcement agency or to take other appropriate action, including but not limited to hospitalizing the patient.”

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