Tarasoff v. The Regents of the
Supreme Court of
Prosenjit Poddar, an Indian graduate student studying naval architecture at the
Poddar moved in with Tatiana's brother over the summer while Tatiana was
visiting her aunt in
The parents of Tatiana sued the campus police, Health Service
employees, and Regents of the
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
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.
Tarasoff I decision meant that the trial court was instructed to hear
the lawsuit against the police and various employees of the
"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
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.
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
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.