Tarasoff v. Regents of University of California
17 Cal.3d 425, 131 Cal.Rptr 14, 551 P.2d 334 (1976)

  • Poddar (a student at Berkeley) confided to his psychologist (Moore) that he wanted to kill Tarasoff. Moore informed the campus police, who questioned Poddar, but nothing else was done, and Tarasoff was not notified.
    • Moore advised the police to have Poddar involuntarily committed, but the police took no action.
  • Two months later, Poddar killed Tarasoff. Tarasoff’s parents sued Moore, the campus police, and their employer (Univ. California) for negligence.
  • The Trial Court dismissed the case. Tarasoff appealed.
    • The Trial Court found that the defendants owed no duty of care to Tarasoff (aka nonfeasance), they they couldn’t be held liable for her death.
  • The California Supreme Court reversed and remanded for trial.
    • The California Supreme Court found that the relationship between the psychologist and his patient qualifies as a special relationship that creates a duty to care beyond the standard common law duty.
      • Of course, the special relationship is between Moore and Poddar, not Moore and Tarasoff. Should that make a difference?
        • The Court found that such a relationship may support affirmative duties for the benefit of third persons like Tarasoff.
    • Univ. California unsuccessfully argued that imposing a duty to care for third parties is unworkable because psychologists cannot accurately predict what patients are going to do, and that forcing disclosure could damage patient-doctor privilege.
    • Moore unsuccessfully argued that if psychologists were forced to break doctor-patient privilege and warn about potentially violent patient, patients wouldn’t trust their therapists, and that would be detrimental to the psychologist’s ability to provide care to their patients.
  • Note that this ruling only established that there was a duty to care, the case was remanded to determine if Moore actually breached the duty.
    • One could argue that Moore met the standard by alerting the police.
  • Basically, this case said that doctor–patient privilege isn’t an excuse for withholding disclosure where disclosure is essential to prevent danger to others. “Protective privilege ends where public peril begins.”
    • Restatement of Torts says that a special duty to care is created when there is a special relationship between two people, and one could argue that the psychologist-patient relationship is a special relationship. But that duty to care is generally thought of as a duty to care for the patient, not a duty to care for people the patient might injure.
  • Btw, Poddar was found not guilty by reason of insanity. The criminal trial had been appealed up to this same California Supreme Court that decided this civil case.
    • If Poddar could not be held accountable for his actions, who could? Shouldn’t someone pay for what happened to Tarasoff?