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.
Posenjit Poddar (Mr. Poddar), the patient of the Defendants, four psychiatrists (Defendants), threatened to kill the Plaintiffs, Mr. and Mrs. Tarasoff’s (Plaintiffs) daughter, Tatiana Tarasoff (Tatiana). Mr. Poddar was briefly detained, but then released. Mr. Poddar did in fact kill Tatiana. The Plaintiffs filed suit claiming that Defendants should be liable for Tatiana’s death because they failed to warn her or them about the patient’s threat.
Synopsis of Rule of Law.
Once a therapist determines or should have determined that the patient poses a serious danger of violence, he bears a duty to exercise reasonable care to protect the foreseeable victim of the danger.
Mr. Poddar was a patient of Dr. Lawrence Moore (Dr. Moore), at Cowell Memorial Hospital of the University of California. Dr. Moore was one of the four Defendants. During one of their sessions, Mr. Poddar informed Dr. Moore that he intended to kill Tatiana because she turned down his romantic advances. Dr. Moore had the campus police detain Mr. Poddar, but he was released shortly thereafter. Despite a disagreement between the psychiatrists at the hospital, no further action was taken to detain Mr. Poddar. Two months later, Mr. Poddar shot and repeatedly stabbed Tatiana, killing her. The Plaintiffs brought a wrongful death suit against the Defendants who failed to detain Mr. Poddar. The court rejected the contention that Defendants could be liable for this inaction because California Government Code Section 856 provided tort immunity with regard to these decisions. Plaintiffs also claimed Defendants should be liable for Tatiana’s death because they failed to warn her or them abo
ut Mr. Poddar’s threat.
Are Defendants liable if it is found that their negligent failure to warn Tatiana or others proximately situated, resulted in the death of Tatiana?
Yes. Leave to amend complaint to state a cause of action against Defendants for breach of duty to exercise reasonable care to protect Tatiana.
* Defendants contend that they owed no duty of care to Tatiana or her parents and were free to act in careless disregard of Tatiana’s life and safety. Although well established in common law that one person has no duty to control the conduct of another or to warn those endangered by this conduct, certain exceptions are judicially made for defendants that stand in some special relationship to either person. Plaintiffs’ pleadings assert a special relation between Mr. Poddar and Defendants, that which arises between a patient and his doctor or psychiatrist.
* California decisions have previously recognized a duty in such cases when the doctor stood in a special relationship to both the patient and the victim. However, based on this court’s view and other jurisdictions, there is no reason to limit the duty to such situations.
* Defendants contend that the imposition of a duty to third persons is unfair because therapists cannot accurately predict whether or not a patient will resort to violence. The Court states that a therapist need not have perfect performance, but rather only needs to exercise the “reasonable degree of skill, knowledge, and care ordinarily possessed and exercised by members of that professional specialty under similar circumstances.” Based on this, the Court’s view is that once a therapist does determine or should have determined the patient poses a serious danger of violence, he bears a duty to exercise reasonable care to protect the foreseeable victim of that danger.
* Defendants also argue that such a duty would impede the free and open communication essential to psychotherapy. They claim that the giving of a warning would constitute a breach of trust. However, the public interest of safety from violent assault must be weighed against this. The Legislature in Evidence Code section 1024 has held there is no doctor-client privilege if the doctor believes the patient is dangerous to the person or property of another. This Court agrees with this balancing test.
The “reasonable degree of skill, knowledge and care ordinarily possessed” standard is the same as that generally applied to malpractice cases for professionals.