Tarasoff v. Regents of the University of California
|Tarasoff v. Regents of the University of California|
|Court||Supreme Court of California|
|Full case name||Vladimir Tarasoff, et al., Plaintiffs-Petitioners v. Regents of the University of California, et al., Defendants-Respondents.|
|Decided||July 1 1976|
|Prior action(s)||Appeal from sustained demurrer|
|Psychotherapists have a duty to protect an individual they reasonably believe to be at risk of injury on the basis of a patient's confidential statements.|
|Chief Judge||Donald Wright|
|Associate Judges||Raymond L. Sullivan, Marshall F. McComb, Matthew O. Tobriner, William P. Clark, Jr., Stanley Mosk, Frank K. Richardson|
|Majority||Tobriner, joined by Wright, Sullivan, Richardson|
|Dissent||Clark, joined by McComb|
Tarasoff v. Regents of the University of California, 17 Cal. 3d 425, 551 P.2d 334, 131 Cal. Rptr. 14 (Cal. 1976), was a case in which the Supreme Court of California held that mental health professionals have a duty to protect individuals who are being threatened with bodily harm by a patient. The original 1974 decision mandated warning the threatened individual, but a 1976 rehearing of the case by the California Supreme Court called for a "duty to protect" the intended victim. The professional may discharge the duty in several ways, including notifying police, warning the intended victim, and/or taking other reasonable steps to protect the threatened individual.
Prosenjit Poddar was a student from Bengal, India. He entered the University of California, Berkeley as a graduate student in September 1967 and resided at International House. In the fall of 1968, he attended folk dancing classes at the International House, and it was there he met Tatiana Tarasoff. They saw each other weekly throughout the fall, and on New Year's Eve she slept with Poddar. He interpreted the act to be a recognition of the existence of a serious relationship. This view was not shared by Tarasoff who, upon learning of his feelings, told him that she was also involved with other men and that she was not interested in entering into an intimate relationship with him. This gave rise to feelings of resentment in Poddar. He began to stalk her.
After this rebuff, Poddar underwent a severe emotional crisis. He became depressed and neglected his appearance, his studies, and his health. He remained by himself, speaking disjointedly and often weeping. This condition persisted, with steady deterioration, throughout the spring and into the summer of 1969. Poddar had occasional meetings with Tarasoff during this period and tape recorded their various conversations to try to find out why she did not love him.
During the summer of 1969, Tarasoff went to South America. After her departure Poddar began to improve and at the suggestion of a friend sought psychological assistance. Prosenjit Poddar was a patient of Dr. Lawrence Moore, a psychologist at UC Berkeley's Cowell Memorial Hospital in 1969. Poddar confided his intent to kill Tarasoff. Dr. Moore requested that the campus police detain Poddar, writing that, in his opinion, Poddar was suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, acute and severe. The psychologist recommended that the defendant be civilly committed as a dangerous person. Poddar was detained but shortly thereafter released, as he appeared rational. Dr. Moore's supervisor, Dr. Harvey Powelson, then ordered that Poddar not be subject to further detention.
In October, after Tarasoff had returned, Poddar stopped seeing his psychologist. Neither Tarasoff nor her parents received any warning of the threat. Poddar then befriended Tarasoff's brother, even moving in with him. Several weeks later, on October 27, 1969, Poddar carried out the plan he had confided to his psychologist, stabbing and killing Tarasoff. Tarasoff's parents then sued Moore and various other employees of the University.
Poddar was subsequently convicted of second-degree murder, but the conviction was later appealed and overturned on the grounds that the jury was inadequately instructed. A second trial was not held, and Poddar was released on the condition that he would return to India.
Opinion of the Court
The California Supreme Court found that a mental health professional has a duty not only to a patient, but also to individuals who are specifically being threatened by a patient. This decision has since been adopted by most states in the U.S. and is widely influential in jurisdictions outside the U.S. as well.
Justice Mathew O. Tobriner wrote the famous holding in the majority opinion. "The public policy favoring protection of the confidential character of patient-psychotherapist communications must yield to the extent to which disclosure is essential to avert danger to others. The protective privilege ends where the public peril begins."
Justice Mosk wrote a partial dissent, arguing two things: (1) that the rule in future cases should be one of the actual subjective prediction of violence on the part of the psychiatrist, which occurred in this case, not one based on objective professional standards, because predictions are inherently unreliable; and (2) the psychiatrists notified the police, who were presumably in a better position to protect Tatiana than she would be to protect herself.
As of 2012, 33 states have adopted a mandatory duty to protect for mental health professionals in statute or common law, 11 states have a permissive duty, and six states are described as having no statutes or case law offering guidance. A duty to warn or protect is mandated and codified in legislative statutes of 23 states, while the duty is not codified in a statute but is present in the common law supported by precedent in 10 states.
While much of the early commentary surrounding Tarasoff consisted of dire proclamations regarding the potential damaging effect the ruling might have on psychotherapy, recent court cases illustrate that therapists are rarely held liable and only in clear-cut cases of failure to warn or protect. In an analysis of 70 appellate cases from 1985 to 2006, it was found that 46 were decided in favor of the mental health professional, 6 were decided in favor of the plaintiff (although only 4 of these used Tarasoff statutes), and 17 were returned to trial courts for further litigation. Courts appeared to rule in favor of victims only in marked cases of negligence by the mental health professional or institution, such as the case of a psychiatrist/patient who was being seen by another psychiatrist admitted his sexual attraction to children, but was recommended for a child psychiatry fellowship where he raped a child.
- People v. Poddar, 518 P. 2d 342
- Intervention and Reflection: Basic Issues in Medical Ethics 8th Edition
- 17 Cal. 3d 425, 442 (1976)
- Slovenko, Psychiatry and a Second Look at the Medical Privilege, 6 Wayne L. Rev. 175, 188 (1960)