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Tarasoff v. Regents of the University of California

Citation. 17 Cal. 3d 425, 551 P.2d 334, 131 Cal. Rptr. 14 (1976)
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Brief Fact Summary.

Poddar told his therapist at school that he would kill Tatiana Tarasoff during his therapy session. The therapist did not warn Tatiana, and Poddar killed her. Tatiana’s parents sued the therapist and the university.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

There’s no general duty to control a third party, unless there’s a special relationship, then you have to take reasonbale steps to prevenrt foreseeable violence.


Plaintiffs are parents of Tatiana Tarasoff, who was killed by Prosenjit Poddar. Two months earlier, Poddar confided his intention to kill Tatiana to the therapist at school. The therapist noticed the campus police and detained Poddar for a while, but released him when he appeared calm. However, the doctors and school did not take any further actions regarding this matter, nor did they warn Tatiana about this potential threat. Unfortunately, Poddar subsequently killed Tatiana.


Does a therapist owe a duty to warn a third party of potential danger posed by a patient?


Yes. The Court dismissed plaintiffs’ claims against defendant police, and against defendant therapist for failure to confine, but reversed against defendant therapists for failure to warn. The Court held that the special doctor-patient relationship imposed a duty to use reasonable care in warning victim of the potential danger.


Justice Clark

Both legal and medical authorities have agreed that confidentiality is essential to effectively treat the mentally ill. Whether effective treatment for the mentally ill should be sacrificed to imposing a duty on doctors to disclose patient threats to potential victims, should be an issue determined by the Legislature not the court.

Justice Clark emphasized the importance of confidentiality in ensuring full disclosure and successful treatment. He also argued that impose a duty to warn would lead impaired and improper treatment, which expose the society to the danger of violence by the mentally ill and greatly increases the risk of civil commitment.


Justice Mosk

Justice Mosk agrees that if the therapist did in fact predict that Poddar would kill Tatiana, then he owed the duty to warn her. However, the he does not agree with the majority opinion which states that the therapist should be held liable if he failed to predict his patient’s tendency to violence for there are no universal standards for prediction and lots of literatures proved that psychiatric predictions of violence are inherently unreliable.


Plaintiff set forth four causes of action, among which only the second cause of action can be amended to state a basis for recovery, which stated that defendants negligently failed to warn Tatiana’s parents.

The question here is whether the plaintiff’s interests were entitled to legal protection against the defendant’s conduct. In Rowland v. Christian, the Supreme Court of California opined that duty arises to an individual, if by not using his ordinary care and skill he would cause danger of injury to another. This fundamental principle only varies upon the balancing of a number of considerations, among which, the most important of these considerations in establishing duty is foreseeability.

As a general principle, a person does not owes a duty to control the conduct of another person in the avoidance of foreseeable harm to others. However, there is an exception when the defendant stands in some special relationship to either the person whose conduct needs to be controlled or in a relationship to the foreseeable victim. In this case, both the therapist-patient relationship and Tatiana being an apparently foreseeable victim satisfy this exception, which imposes an affirmative duty in the therapist to warn Tatiana.

The Court also addressed the confidentiality issue between doctors and patients. The Court stated that such confidentiality may be broken in order to protect the welfare of the public. In this case, the protection of a person’s life outweighs the confidential character of patient-psychotherapist communications.

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