The Tarasoff case

On October 27, 1969, Prosenjit Poddar killed Tatiana Tarasoff. Both had been students at the University of California at Berkeley. They had met a year earlier at a folk dancing class. After a kiss on New Year's, Poddar became convinced they had a serious relationship. Tarasoff told him she was involved with other men and not interested. Poddar became depressed, neglecting his studies and health, speaking disjointedly and often weeping. He talked to a friend about blowing up her room, and was eventually convinced to go to student health. He started therapy with a psychologist on staff, Dr. Lawrence Moore. In August, during his ninth session, Poddar confided to Dr. Moore that he was going to kill Tarasoff when she returned from summer break. Dr. Moore subsequently informed the campus police that he felt Poddar was dangerous and that he should be hospitalized involuntarily. The police picked up Poddar, but after questioning felt he had "changed his attitude" and released him after he promised to stay away from Tarasoff. The psychiatric directior, Dr. Harvey Powelson, learned of the situation and instructed his staff not to pursue further attempts to hospitalize Poddar. Poddar stopped seeing Dr. Moore. In October, he went to Tarasoff's house and stabbed her to death with a kitchen knife. He then called the police and asked to be handcuffed.

The California Supreme Court heard the case twice, in 1974 and 1976. The court found the police could be held liable in the first hearing, but not in the second. In contrast to the police, the therapist was consistently held liable because of the "special relation that arises between a patient and his doctor or psychotherapist." Amicus arguments filed by therapist organizations contended that therapists are unreliable at being able to predict dangerousness. Mentioned was one study of 989 people who were considered dangerous by psychiatrists who said they should be maintained in maximum security hospitals, but who were discharged to civil hospitals for legal reasons, 20% returning to the community after one year. In the course of the year, only 7 of 989 had threatened or committed an act requiring maximum security hospitalization. The court recognized their ruling would lead to unnecessary warnings, but concluded that "once a therapist does in fact determine, or under applicable professional standards reasonably should have determined, that a patient poses a serious danger of violence to others, he bears a duty to exercise reasonable care to protect the foreseeable victim of that danger."

Many states followed California's lead and now have expectations of a "duty to warn" potential victims. Other states like Florida, Texas, South Carolina, and Virginia have rejected this doctrine. In California, this duty has been limited by subsequent rulings. In Thompson v. County of Alameda, the California Supreme Court limited the duty to protect to third parties to those who were identifiable as potential victims. "[N]on-specific threats of harm directed at non-specific victims" could not create a duty to protect. This does not seem to be true of driving.

References for the above information:

  1. Buckner F and Firestone M. "Where the Public Peril Begins": 25 Years After Tarasoff. The Journal of Legal Medicine. (June 2000); 21 (2): 187-222.
  2. Tarasoff v. Regents of University of California, 17 Cal. 3d 425, 551 P.2d 334, 131 Cal. Rptr. 14 (Cal. 1976).
  3. Walcott DM, Cerundolo P, Beck JC. Current analysis of the Tarasoff duty: An evolution towards the limitation of the duty to protect. Behavioral Science and the Law. (2001) 19 (3): 325-343.
  4. Weinstock R, Leong GB, Silva JA. Potential erosion of psychotherapist-patient privilege beyond California: Dangers of "criminalizing" Tarasoff. Behavioral Science and the Law. (2001) 19 (3): 437-449.