Summary of Tarasoff v. Regents of the University of California, S. Ct. of CA, 1976
Failure to Act
Relevant Facts: On October 27, 1969, Prosenjit Poddar killed Tatiana Tarasoff. Plaintiffs, Tatiana’s parents, allege that two months earlier Poddar confided his intention to kill Tatiana to Dr. Lawrence Moore, a psychologist employed by the Cowell Memorial Hospital at the University of California at Berkeley. They allege that on Moore’s request, the campus police briefly detained Poddar, but released him when he appeared rational. They further claim that Dr. Harvey Powelson, Moore’s superior, then directed that no further action be taken to detain Poddar. No one warned plaintiffs of Tatiana’s peril.
Legal Issue(s): Whether when df therapists failure to warn plaintiffs–Tatiana’s parents–of the danger to Tatiana was a breach of duty to safeguard their patient and the public ?
Court’s Holding: The therapist owes a legal duty not only to his patient, but also to his patient’s would-be victim and is subject in both respects to scrutiny by judge and jury.’
Procedure: Action against university regents, psychotherapists employed by university hospital and campus police trial ct. sustained df demurrers without leave to amend, and pl appealed. Affirmed in part and reversed and remanded in part for further proceedings.
Law or Rule(s): a duty of care may arise from either ‘(a) a special relation . . . between the actor and the third person which imposes a duty upon the actor to control the third person’s conduct, or (b) a special relation . . . between the actor and the other which gives to the other a right of protection.’
Court Rationale: Df therapists cannot escape liability merely because Tatiana herself was not their patient. 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, depending upon the nature of the case. Thus it may call for him to warn the intended victim or others likely to apprise the victim of the danger, to notify the police, or to take whatever other steps are reasonably necessary under the circumstances.
Plaintiff’s Argument: Tatiana’s death proximately resulted from defendants’ negligent failure to warn Tatiana or others likely to apprise her of her danger.
Defendant’s Argument: The circumstances of the present case they owed no duty of care to Tatiana or her parents and that, in the absence of such duty, they were free to act in careless disregard of Tatiana’s life and safety.
Obviously we do not require that the therapist, in making that determination, render a perfect performance; the therapist need only exercise ‘that reasonable degree of skill, knowledge, and care ordinarily possessed and exercised by members of (that professional specialty) under similar circumstances.