The Therapist’s Job to Protect People from the Therapist’s Patient
Before the 1970s, mental health professionals had no personal legal responsibility if their patients turned violent against some outsider. Such outbursts were thought to be unfortunate and regrettable, yes, but subject to legal accountability, no. That changed with a shocking case in Berkeley, California. Since then, courts in a variety of states have said that mental health therapists can be subject to malpractice lawsuits for failing to protect certain foreseeable victims from violence by the therapists’ own patients.
The California case involved a graduate student at UC-Berkeley who became infatuated with a young woman named Tatiana Tarasoff. When she rebuffed him, the young man sought counseling with a psychologist at the university health service. He told the therapist he wanted to kill Ms. Tarasoff. The therapist reported this to campus police and the police warned the young man to stay away from Ms. Tarasoff. When she returned from a summer away, he stalked and fatally stabbed her. Her parents then sued the university. They claimed the therapist should have directly warned Ms. Tarasoff. The trial court threw the case out on the ground that the therapist owed a duty only to the patient, not to any outsider. Then the California Supreme Court ruled twice, in 1974 and then on a rehearing in 1976, that a mental health therapist did have a duty to protect an outsider under some circumstances. The court said:
“When a therapist determines, or pursuant to the standards 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 discharge of this duty may require the therapist to take one or more of various steps. Thus, it may call for him to warn the intended victim, to notify the police, or to take whatever steps are reasonably necessary under the circumstances.”
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