By Keith Coffman
DENVER (Reuters) - A federal judge refused on Wednesday to dismiss wrongful death and personal injury claims brought against a movie theater chain on behalf of victims of last summer's mass shooting at a suburban Denver screening of the Batman film "The Dark Knight Rises."
U.S. District Judge R. Brooke Jackson ruled that Cinemark USA, owner of the theater where 12 people were shot dead, could potentially be found liable for damages under a Colorado law that holds landowners responsible for activities on their property.
The statute, he wrote, "provides that Cinemark owes its theater patrons a duty to exercise reasonable care to protect them against dangers of which Cinemark knew or should have known."
Although he denied Cinemark's bid to throw out the lawsuits, he agreed to narrow the scope of the litigation, finding that the theater chain could not be held liable under a general negligence claim.
Numerous civil actions have been brought in state and federal court against the Texas-based company over the July 20 shooting rampage in the Denver suburb of Aurora. Twelve people died and 70 were injured in the shooting.
The lawsuits generally claim Cinemark was aware of previous crimes at the multiplex and failed to provide adequate security to its patrons.
James Holmes, a former graduate student, has been charged with multiple counts of first-degree murder and attempted murder stemming from the shooting, which ranks as one of the most lethal bursts of gun violence in U.S. history.
Police have said Holmes was a paying member of the movie audience the night of the massacre, having purchased his ticket in advance. They say he left the theater through a rear exit after the film started, then returned moments later from the parking lot, lobbed a tear gas canister into the auditorium and began spraying moviegoers with gunfire until his weapon jammed. He was arrested by police behind the theater moments later.
Prosecutors have said they will seek the death penalty for the 25-year-old California native if he is convicted. Holmes' lawyers are expected to pursue an insanity defense if the case goes to trial.
An attorney for various victims suing in state court, Marc Bern, hailed the decision to allow the lawsuits to proceed.
"We applaud the judge for doing the right thing. Now it's up to Cinemark to do the right thing," he said.
Attorneys for Cinemark were not immediately available for comment. But in its motion seeking dismissal of the lawsuits, the company said its employees could not have anticipated having to deal with "a madman's mass murder."
"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 said.
Legal analyst and Denver personal injury lawyer Craig Silverman said the lawsuits "survived, but barely."
"The plaintiffs can now proceed with discovery where they will seek to learn more about the theater's prior problems with dangerous situations," he said.
(Editing by Steve Gorman and Stacey Joyce)