It’s a sad case, really. In 1969 Prosenjit Poddar, a student at UC Berkeley, sought psychiatric counseling with Dr. Moore, a psychologist employed by the university. Poddar had become enamored with another student, Tatiana Tarasoff, and started stalking her when she rejected his advances. In the 9th session Poddar threatened to kill Tarasoff. Moore discusses the case with his supervisor and informed the police, verbally and in writing, that Poddar was unstable and in need of civil commitment. The police detained Poddar, but released him when he appeared rational and stated that he would not go near Tarasoff. After the unsuccessful commitment attempt Poddar ceased going to therapy and Moore was directed to take no further action.
Two moths later Tarasoff returned from a trip abroad and Poddar shot and stabbed her to death. Her parents sued on the basis that Moore should have warned them. The resulting 1974 case, Tarasoff v. Regents of the University of California, created what is known as the duty to warn.
What is interesting, and often overlooked, in this woeful tale is the rehearing in 1976 by the California State Supreme Court, which held that mental health providers did not have a duty to warn, but instead a duty to protect. In essence, if a mental health provider is privy to a threat, he or she has a duty to protect the potential victim. This duty to protect can be discharged by warning the potential victim, warning the police, through a commitment, or a combination of strategies. This amendment meant that the defendants were off the hook for failing their duty to detain Poddar, but that they were liable for failing their duty to warn.
My take on this case is a little different. I wonder why, under the 1976 ruling, the duty to warn was not discharged o the police when they were informed by Moore that Poddar planned to kill Tarasoff? But I’m not a legal expert, and I don’t know, with the modern knowledge of the duty to protect, that it is even relevant.
Pabian, Welfel, and Beebe (2009) polled 1,000 psychologists, receiving 300 usable responses, on their knowledge of Tarasoff laws in their states. From the Abstract:
Most psychologists (76.4%) were misinformed by their state’s laws, believing that they had a legal duty to warn when they did not, or assuming that warning was their only legal option when other protective actions less harmful to client privacy were allowed.
I’m sorry to read this, but I’m not too surprised, considering that the Tarasoff case is one of the standard bits taught in Intro to Psychology classes. Pabian et al. also find that many sources, including the APAs PsycINFO database, still use the language from the first case, “duty to warn,” instead of the more modern language, “duty to inform.”
Tarasoff laws vary. Herbert and Young (2002) notes that my home state, West Virginia, does not have a duty to warn, but has an option to warn. What I found in West Virginia Code (§27-3-1 (b)(5) is, “Confidential information shall not be disclosed, except…To protect against a clear and substantial danger of imminent injury by a patient or client to himself, herself or another.” That reads a little more mandatory than Herbert and Young claim. But again, I’m not a legal scholar.
I checked the Client Rights and Responsibilities form from an old employer, which states that they may disclose information in order to avoid a serious threat to health or safety. That doesn’t mean that it’s law, though. If West Virginia says that you may disclose information, I supposed it is legal for a provider to state that they will disclose information.
Yvona L. Pabian, Elizabeth Welfel, Ronald S. Beebe (2009). Psychologists’ knowledge of their states’ laws pertaining to Tarasoff-type situations. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 40 (1), 8-14 DOI: 10.1037/a0014784