Tarasoff v. The Regents of the University of California

 

Supreme Court of California, 1976

 

Facts: Prosenjit Poddar, an Indian graduate student studying naval architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, started to date a fellow student named Tatiana Tarasoff. He kissed her a few times and felt he had a special relationship with her. He was totally unfamiliar with American mores and had never had a date before. He felt betrayed when Tatiana flaunted her relationships with other men. Because of his depression he went to a psychologist, Dr. Moore, at the University Health Service. He revealed his intention to get a gun and shoot Tatiana Tarasoff. Dr. Moore sent a letter to the campus police requesting them to take Poddar to a psychiatric hospital. The campus police interviewed Mr. Poddar, but he convinced them that he was not dangerous. They released him on the promise that he would stay away from Ms. Tarasoff. When the Health Service psychiatrist in charge returned from vacation, he directed that the letter to the police be destroyed and no further action taken.

 

Mr. Poddar moved in with Tatiana's brother over the summer while Tatiana was visiting her aunt in Brazil. When Tatiana returned, Mr. Poddar stalked her and stabbed her to death.

 

The parents of Tatiana sued the campus police, Health Service

employees, and Regents of the University of California for failing

to warn them that their daughter was in danger. The trial court

dismissed the case because it said there was no cause of action.

Before Tarasoff, a doctor had a duty to a patient, but not to a

third party. The Appeals Court supported the dismissal. An appeal

was taken to the California Supreme Court.

 

In 1974, the California Supreme Court reversed the appellate decision. The Court held that a therapist bears a duty to use reasonable care to give threatened persons such warnings as are essential to avert foreseeable danger arising from a patient's condition. This is known as the Tarasoff I decision.

 

The Tarasoff I decision meant that the trial court was instructed to hear the lawsuit against the police and various employees of the University of California. Due to great uproar among psychiatrists and policemen, the California Supreme Court took the very unusual step of rehearing the same case in 1976. That decision (this case) came to be known as Tarasoff II.

 

Holding: "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.

 

Reasoning: The Court quoted as precedent that doctors have been held liable for negligent failure to diagnose a contagious disease or failing to warn family members of it.

 

The defendants contended through amici briefs, including an APA brief, that psychiatrists were unable to accurately predict violence. The Court replied that they did not require therapists to render a perfect performance, "but only to exercise that reasonable degree of skilled care ordinarily possessed by members of their profession under similar circumstances." Proof, aided by hindsight, is insufficient to establish negligence. In the Tarasoff case itself, the therapist did accurately predict Poddar's danger of violence.

 

The ultimate question of resolving the tension between the conflicting interests of patient and potential victim is one of social policy, not professional expertise. The risk that unnecessary warnings may be given is a reasonable price to pay for the lives of possible victims that may be saved. One of the famous alliterative quotes from this case is, "The protective privilege ends where the public peril begins."

 

Dissent: Concern was expressed that the majority decision may result in an increase in violence because patients might not seek treatment. There was also concern that psychiatrists may over commit patients to avoid the risk of civil liability.

 

Commentary: The majority of state supreme courts that have addressed the issue have concurred with the Tarasoff decision. At least 17 states have now passed Tarasoff limiting statutes, which usually require an explicit threat, and state that the therapist's Tarasoff duty will be discharged if he does one of a number of things, such as notify the intended victim, and/or law enforcement authorities.

 

The most common error about Tarasoff today is the misperception that it is a duty to warn rather than a duty to protect. This is due to the publicity given to the 1974 Tarasoff I case, which was superseded by Tarasoff II in 1976.

 

The case was settled out of court for a significant amount of money and never went to trial. Mr. Poddar served four years of a five-year prison sentence for manslaughter. His conviction was overturned due to faulty jury instructions on diminished capacity. A second trial was not held on the promise that Poddar return to India. He was last heard to be happily married in India.

 

Predictions that psychotherapy would be drastically altered never came to pass. Research showed that even before the Tarasoff decision, therapists were breaching confidentiality to protect intended victims.