This is the third installment in my continuing series of famous tort cases that have come from the California court system. Today’s case is Tarasoff v. Regents of the University of California (1976) 17 Cal.3d 425.
Facts of the Case: A graduate student attending the University of California at Berkeley met another graduate student at school and tried to start a romantic relationship with her. When his advances were rebuffed, he started having serious psychological issues and eventually sought counseling with a therapist from the University. During the course of his psychotherapy sessions, he made a confession to his psychologist that he intended to kill the woman that had refused his romantic gestures. The female student, Tatiana Tarasoff, had been on a study abroad but, had recently returned to attending school at the time the threats were made. Although the health care worker did diagnose the patient with paranoid schizophrenia and requested a detention by campus police and an involuntary hold of the patient, the patient was later released and carried out his threat by committing murder of Tarasoff. Tarasoff’s family sued the University for the wrongful death of their daughter.
Legal Issues Presented: The main issue to be decided was whether the school psychologist had a duty to warn Tarasoff that threats had been made against her life by the patient. A related issue was whether the communication of a threat of bodily harm or violence was something not protected by the normal doctor patient privilege which usually allows certain conversations between a doctor and a patient to remain confidential.
Ruling of the Court: The California Supreme Court held that a mental health professional has a duty not only to their patient but to anyone that is being specifically threatened by their patient and that the normal “privileged communications” rules did not apply to protect the content of specific threats of harm. They held that the Tarasoff’s should be allowed to present to a jury whether a failure to warn their daughter was a legal cause of her death and collect money damages from the college as a result.
This has now developed into a specific cause of action with a related jury instruction (California Civil Jury Instructions 503A) that allows suits to be brought when the following is shown: (1) defendant (person being sued) is a psychotherapist; (2) They had a patient that communicated a “serious threat of physical violence”; (3) there was a “reasonably identifiable victim of the patient’s threat”; (3) the patient injured or killed the victim; and (4) the therapist failed to make “reasonable efforts” to protect the victim; and (5) this failure to protect was a substantial factor in causing harm to the victim.
This rule of law has been adopted in the majority of other states in the U.S. Some states have even expanded upon this duty.
Why is this case important to the people of the State of California: One of the key concepts in the law when it comes to protecting the public by allowing victims of serious bodily injury or the family of victims who have died due to wrongful, negligent and even criminal conduct is whether or not the person being sued had a duty to the person harmed or their surviving loved ones. This is a seminal authority that expanded the notion of how such a duty should be found where the defendant is in a position and has the means to prevent harm to others by taking certain actions. The case has been cited numerous times in the last several decades to support other decisions to impose an obligation on certain persons to protect the public from harm.
As a personal injury attorney, I am grateful to live in a State whose civil justice system values human life and order in society enough to impose an affirmative obligation to act and accountability for failing to act when it can save a life!