|Are mental health workers supposed to help their clients,|
or do they have a duty to protect the public from harm?
Two years later, the case made its way back to the California Supreme Court. At that time, the Court clarified its first ruling, and they found the university actually had a duty to protect Ms. Tarasoff. In the discharge of that duty, they stated the hospital should have notified the potential victim, called the police, and taken whatever steps that were "reasonably necessary under the circumstances." They further clarified that the university had a duty to break the killer's confidentiality in order to protect the potential victim. The most famous quote from this decision is, "The protective privilege ends where the public peril begins."
|Prosenjit Poddar, Ms. Tarasoff's killer|
The second case is Jablonski v. U.S. In this case, a man with a severe personality disorder and a history of rape and violence killed his girlfriend. The daughter of the girlfriend sued a hospital that failed to involuntarily hospitalize the man several weeks before the killing because they did not gather adequate information about him prior to making the decision to release him. The suit alleged the hospital also failed to warn the intended victim.
In this case, the trial court ruled the hospital was negligent for both above-mentioned reasons. The court ruled the hospital had an absolute duty to warn the girlfriend she was in foreseeable danger. On appeal, the Appeals Court affirmed the lower court's decision.
So, how do these cases relate to the lawsuits against Dr. Fenton? The Tarasoff decision would dictate that Dr. Fenton had a duty to protect potential victims from the shooter. Plaintiff's attorneys could argue she should have called the Aurora police and done more to escalate her concerns through the University of Colorado's emergency management system. She also could have had him involuntarily committed when campus police asked her if the shooter needed that level of care about a month before the shooting.
The tricky aspect with Tarasoff is that it is a California Supreme Court decision. Thus, it does not necessarily hold for different states. A defense attorney could argue there is no duty to protect spelled out in Colorado law the way it is in California. That is where the Jablonski decision becomes important. This was a decision through the U.S. Court of Appeals. Although it did not establish the duty to protect on the Federal level, it certainly established the duty to warn. And, the duty to protect, as it is described in the Tarasoff decision, has now become the standard of practice to which psychologists and psychiatrists are held, regardless of what state they work in.
|The risk of harm is not always as foreseeable to|
mental health workers as it is to this woman.
Thanks for reading-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.