By Robert Boczkiewicz
DENVER (Reuters) - A federal judge in Denver on Monday ordered the consolidation of seven lawsuits brought against the Cinemark theater chain by survivors and relatives of those killed in a shooting rampage in which 12 moviegoers were slain as they watched a Batman film.
U.S. District Judge R. Brooke Jackson also set May 5, 2014, as the earliest start date that any of the personal injury and wrongful death claims against Cinemark could proceed to trial.
Merging the cases and setting a tentative calendar for the litigation came during the first court hearing stemming from civil suits accusing Texas-based Cinemark USA Inc of lax theater security in connection with the July 20 massacre.
Twelve people were killed and 58 wounded when a gunman opened fire on Cinemark patrons in Aurora, Colorado, during a midnight screening of "The Dark Knight Rises."
The suspect, 24-year-old former neuroscience graduate student James Holmes, is charged with dozens of counts of murder and attempted murder. The criminal case against Holmes is in a preliminary stage with no trial date set. He has not yet entered a plea and defense lawyers have said in court that Holmes suffers from an unspecified mental illness.
In addition to four personal injury suits and three wrongful death complaints consolidated for pretrial proceedings in federal court by Jackson, a separate lawsuit has been filed in state court on behalf of a dozen victims and victims' families.
Christina Habas, an attorney representing three of the 13 individual plaintiffs in the federal cases, told Jackson she anticipates adding additional plaintiffs.
The idea behind consolidating numerous similar lawsuits is to streamline pretrial proceedings and avoid duplication of discovery motions and depositions.
The lawsuits stemming from the mass shooting in July accuse Cinemark of failing to take proper precautions to prevent such an outbreak of violence.
The plaintiffs claim, among other things, that the theater should have had more security in place because it was aware of previous crimes in or near the multiplex, including "assaults and robberies" and at least one gang shooting.
Cinemark has filed a motion seeking dismissal of the lawsuits, contending the company and its employees could not have anticipated having to deal with "a madman's mass murder" at the theater.
"It would be patently unfair, and legally unsound, to impose on Cinemark, a private business in the entertainment industry, the duty and burden to have foreseen and prevented the criminal equivalent of a meteor falling from the sky," the motion states.
U.S. District Court Magistrate Judge Michael Hegarty, who is assisting Jackson with the cases, told lawyers for both sides he plans to rule in January on the motion to dismiss.
Cinemark attorney Kevin Taylor said he cannot fully prepare a defense until law enforcement authorities return surveillance video footage from at least 16 cameras that the company had at the theater complex and until he is allowed to see statements police took from hundreds of persons at the crime scene.
A state judge presiding over the murder case against Holmes has denied a request by lawyers for several survivors for a court order requiring prosecutors to turn over sealed evidence in the criminal investigation for review in the civil suits.
(Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Lisa Shumaker)