Tarasoff v. Regents of University of California

BY:- Kamakshi Agrawal

Name of the caseTarasoff v. Regents of university of California
Citation17 Cal. 3d 425, 551 P.2d 334, 131 Cal. Rptr. 14
Date of the caseJuly 1, 1976
Petitioner/plaintiffVitali Tarasoff
Respondent/defendantRegents of university of California
Bench/ judges        Donald Wrigh, Raymond L. Sullivan, Marshall F. McComb, Matthew O. Tobriner, William P. Clark, Jr., Stanley, Frank K. Richardson
Statute/ rule under constitutionPsychologists have a right of ‘duty to protect’ if any individual is at risk from their client’s future action.

INTRODUCTION:

Safeguarding all the private information regarding the client is very essential role towards the healthcare especially when the case is about the patient related to mental illness. A breach in privacy terms can lead to the trust issues between the counsellor/therapist and the active patient which ultimately results into more negative outcomes, health hazards and also to legal issues as discussed in this case. However, this case has remained in controversial list since 1976, as the therapist breached the details out to the victim which is further discussed in detail below.

FACTS OF THE CASE:

In 1969, Prosenjit Poddar who was a college student at the University of California, Berkley started eying a girl name Tatiana Tarasoff at his dance classes. She was a beautiful and young Russian woman, later when the conversation between two became more regular they started dating each other.

After sometime their relationship started dissolving and Tarasoff rejected him in favour of other man, Poddar was not able to overcome his past and started self-doubting, he developed anger issues and became extremely depressed. He then decided to take therapy from Lawrence Moore, a psychologist at Berkeley’s Cowell Memorial Hospital. during his seventh and final treatment session, Poddar discussed his intention to harm an unidentified female. Although the intended victim was not named directly, Tarasoff was easily identified by Ms. Moore.

Dr. Moore after listening concerned for the safety of Tarasoff, wrote to the campus police regarding the safety of Tarasoff also to have Poddar detained by campus she added that he was suffering from an acute episode of paranoid schizophrenia. Poddar was then detained by the campus police and was held to an intense interview after which he was released as he answered all the questions accordingly.

He was then warned to stay away from Tarasoff and hence no further action was taken against him considering that he won’t cause any harm to Tarasoff. After his release, Dr. Harvey Powelson, medical ordered the destruction of all notes taken by Dr. Moore as well as the returns of all letters from the police.  Tarasoff including her parents were not informed or warned of the threat.

 Poddar did not return to therapy after release. He instead began stalking Tarasoff again also befriended Tarasoff’s brother and moved in with him. Several weeks later, on October 27, 1969, Poddar attacked Tarasoff shot her with a gun and stabbed her to death with the help of a kitchen knife. After this incident, Tarasoff’s parents sued Dr Moore including the whole university, stating that they should have been warned of the threat to their daughter before this incident.

Poddar was found guilty as a charge of second-degree murder and was sentenced to five years of jail. In 1974, the Supreme Court ruled that mental health professionals do have a duty to warn, though a strong dissent from Justice Clark argued that a duty to warn compromised the confidentiality of psychotherapy of the patient and that clients might not seek treatment if they knew that their stories might be shared with third parties.

ISSUES RAISED:

Does defendants owe a duty to victim thus making them liable for the injury caused to the plaintiff?

PLAINTIFF’S ARGUMENT:

Tatiana’s parents filled case against Dr. Moore and also including all the regents of university for not informing/warning about Poddar being dangerous to the life of their daughter. The plaintiffs further argued that Dr. Moore failed to provide adequate follow up care with Poddar to ensure he was not a danger to himself nor the public.

DEFENDANT’S ARGUMENT:

Dr. Moore argued that being a professional therapist he was not having any right to provide his client’s information to any third party this will constitute to the act of breach of trust, further he argues mental health providers cannot with certainty predict the likelihood that a patient with act on threats of violence.

HOLDING AND DECISION:

The first two courts concluded that ruled that the Tarasoff’s did not have a valid cause of action, since there was no duty of care placed on the University employees for Poddar’s behaviour. They ruled that there was no legal duty to act in order to avoid someone else’s harmful behaviour. Then further ruling by the supreme court provided that there must be a balance between the information provided by the client to his/her therapist. If the psychotherapists feel that the intentions of their patient may lead to some serious injury to someone, then they can provide this information under ‘duty to protect’ which means that they are only providing their client’s information to protect any kind of mishap from his patient mental condition.

In the context of Tarasoff’s case when a health care provider (Dr Moore) has direct or indirect knowledge of information that a reasonable individual may determine that a patient may harm himself or others, this provider must exercise reasonable and prudent judgement to prevent harm. The court in California ruled that mental health professionals have an obligation to both the patient and individuals who are threatened by a patient.

It also became evident, following the Tarasoff decision, that therapists must carefully consider threats relayed to them by relatives of a person in therapy, as the ruling could again extend to cover those cases in the future. Also, Poddar was found guilty and was convicted as a second stage murderer but following an appeal, a new judge agreed to release Poddar on the condition that he be deported to India. He returned to Calcutta, got married, and had a child.

IMPACT AND DEVELOPMENT AFTER TARASOFF’S CASE:

Psychotherapists now have become more careful in handling the confidentiality of their patient. They are also much more likely to warn potential victims about possible threats. The California Supreme Court’s ruling also clarified that although several conditions can give rise to a duty to warn, the most important factor is a foreseeable threat. The ruling applies only in California, but it has been used across the nation to educate therapists about the importance of protecting third parties.

As of 2012, a duty to warn or protect is mandated and codified in legislative statutes of 23 states, while the duty is not codified in a statute but is present in the common law supported by precedent in 10 states. However, courts do rule in victims’ in clear-cut cases of failure to warn or protect, such as the case of a psychiatrist who committed rape during a child psychiatry fellowship, for which he was recommended even after telling his own psychiatrist about his sexual attraction to children.

CONCLUSION:

So after looking briefly into tarasoff’s case we can conclude that the Tarasoff family used this same ‘duty of care’ argument to assert that the University had an affirmative duty to detain Poddar and warn Tarasoff. They argued that, because it was easily foreseeable that Poddar would harm Tarasoff, the University had a legal duty to act in order to avoid that harm. hence, psychotherapists are given a right to breach the trust of their client by providing his confidential information only if his/her client’s action mat can cause serious injury to any individual.

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