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Tarasoff v. Regents of University of California

Citation. Tarasoff v. Regents of University of California, 17 Cal. 3d 425, 551 P.2d 334, 131 Cal. Rptr. 14, 83 A.L.R.3d 1166 (Cal. 1976).
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Brief Fact Summary.

Dr. Lawrence Moore’s (Defendant’s) mentally disturbed patient killed Tatiana Tarasoff (Tarasoff). Tarasoff’s parents (Plaintiffs) argued that Defendant owed Plaintiff a duty to warn.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

When the avoidance of foreseeable harm requires a defendant to control the conduct of another person, or to warn of such conduct, the common law has traditionally imposed liability only if the defendant bears some special relationship to the dangerous person or to the potential victim.


Moore (Defendant) was a psychologist at the University of California (Defendant) hospital. Posenjit Poddar (Poddar) was an outpatient at Defendant’s hospital. Moore diagnosed Poddar with paranoid schizophrenic reaction, acute and severe. Poddar told Moore that he intended to kill Tarasoff, because she was unresponsive to his romantic advances. Upon Moore’s request, the campus police briefly detained Poddar. Moore’s superior (Defendant) then released Poddar. Tarasoff was not warned of Poddar’s threats or condition. Poddar killed Tarasoff. Plaintiffs brought a wrongful death action against Defendants. Plaintiffs’ complaint predicates liability on two grounds: Defendants’ failure to warn and failure to confine Poddar.


Do Defendants, psychologists, owe a duty to Tarasoff, a third person, based on the relationship with a patient?


Yes. Judgment for Plaintiffs.
* Defendants claim that they owe Tarasoff, a third person, no duty and that in absence of a duty they are free to act in careless disregard of Tarasoff’s life and safety.
* Duty is an expression of the sum total of those considerations of policy, which lead the law to say that the particular plaintiff is entitled to protection. The most important of the considerations in establishing duty is foreseeability. Defendant owes a duty of care to all persons who are foreseeably endangered by his conduct, with respect to all risks, which make the conduct unreasonably dangerous. When the avoidance of foreseeable harm requires a defendant to control the conduct of another person, or to warn of such conduct, the common law has traditionally imposed liability only if the defendant bears some special relationship to the dangerous person or to the potential victim.
* Under the Restatement of Torts Section: 315, a duty of care may arise from either (a) a special relation between the actor and the third person which imposes a duty up the actor to control the third person’s conduct; or (b) a special relationship between the actor and the other which gives the other a right of protection.
* One person owes no duty to control the conduct of another, however the courts have carved out an exception to this rule when the defendant stands in a special relationship. In this case, the relationship of Defendants (psychologists/therapists) to either Plaintiff or the patient, Poddar, will suffice to establish a duty of care.
* California decisions that recognize this duty have involved cases in which the defendant stood in a special relationship both to the victim and the person whose conduct created the danger. Plaintiff is this case, stood in no special relationship with Defendant, however the court did not think that the duty should be constricted to such situations. The court analogized the facts in this case to that of a doctor who is liable to persons infected by his patient if he negligently fails to diagnose a contagious disease, or, having diagnosed the illness, fails to warn members of the patient’s family.
* Defendants contend that a duty to exercise reasonable care to protect third persons is unworkable because a therapist cannot accurately predict whether or not a patient will resort to violence. Defendants add that therapists are more often wrong than right. The court recognizes this difficulty and requires that Defendants exercise that reasonable degree of skill, knowledge, and care ordinarily possessed and exercised by members of that professional specialty under similar circumstances. In this case, it is not contested that Defendants did in fact predict that Poddar would kill Plaintiff’s daughter. Plaintiff’s complaint alleged that Defendants failed to warn, knowing what would likely happen.
* The court recognized the public interest in safeguarding the confidential character of psychotherapeutic communication but felt that it must give in to the public interest in safety from violent assault. The court summarized its reasoning in adding, “the protective privilege ends where the public peril begins.”
* Defendant therapists were not immune from liability for their failure to warn. Both defendant therapists and defendant police officers were immune from liability for failure to confine Poddar.


(Justice Clark) Confidentiality is essential to effectively treat the mentally ill and imposing a duty on doctors to disclose patient threats to potential victims greatly impairs treatment. The Legislature has already decided that effective and confidential treatment is preferred over imposition of a duty to warn.
Concurrence. (Justice Mosk) The concurrence states that Defendants did in fact know that Poddar was going to kill. The court is not concerned with the fact that Defendants should have known Poddar was going to kill.


In this case, the court held that a special relationship existed between Plaintiff and Defendant. Because of this special relationship, Defendant owed Plaintiff the duty to w

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