What was the key point of the 1976 California Supreme Court ruling in Tarasoff v. Regents of the University of California?

In this case, Prosenjit Poddar, a student at the University of California, Berkeley, informed his outpatient treating psychologist that he had thoughts of killing fellow student Tatiana Tarasoff. The psychologist notified campus police. The police questioned Prosenjit and after he denied wanting to harm Tatiana, they released him. The psychologist did not warn Tatiana or her parents of this threat as there was no duty established at this point for an outpatient psychiatry to communicate a threat of harm to a third party. When Tatiana returned from vacation, Prosenjit went to her home and killed her. Tatiana’s parents later learned that Prosenjit had communicated this threat to his psychologist. They sued the psychologist, the campus police, and the Regents of the University of California for failing to warn Tatiana.

In 1974, the California Supreme Court established that a therapist had a “duty to warn” a potential victim of predictable danger. The American Psychiatric Association submitted a brief protesting this newly established duty. The California Supreme Court reheard the case and established a broader “duty to protect.” The court held, “When a therapist determines, or pursuant to the standard of his profession should determine, that his patient presents a serious danger of violence to another, he incurs an obligation to use reasonable care to protect the intended victim against such danger.” The key point of the second ruling is that a therapist’s warning to a potential victim may not be sufficient to escape legal liability for harm to a third party. Instead, the therapist might be required “to warn the intended victim of others likely to apprise the victim of the danger, to notify the police, or to take whatever steps are reasonably necessary under the circumstances.”

Although this legal case applies to California only, after the ruling, other states also began to examine and codify these issues through legislation as well as other cases that shape the contours of potential responses. Clinicians should be familiar with jurisdictional practices in their region and request consultations if they are uncertain how to proceed when potential third parties may be at risk of harm due to actions by patients.

This answer card supplements the issue brief, Duty to Warn, Duty to Protect, And Duty to Control: The Exceptions to Mental Health Provider-Patient Confidentiality.

 

REFERENCES

Tarasoff v. Regents of the University of California, 551 P.2d 334 (1976)

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