Harvard Mental Health Letter

The duty to protect

In 1974, a decision of the California Supreme Court shocked mental health professionals by suggesting that they had an apparently indefinite duty to protect third persons from injury inflicted by their patients or clients. But the results of that decision have proved easier to assimilate than anyone expected at the time, and today it is no longer a major worry.

Before 1974, American mental health professionals seemed to have few legal obligations toward people they were not treating. No clinician had been successfully sued for malpractice if a patient injured a third party, unless the patient was clearly dangerous and had been negligently discharged or allowed to escape from a mental hospital.

The original Tarasoff decision seemed to threaten a drastic change in the rules. The psychologist treating Prosenjit Poddar, a student at the University of California at Berkeley, learned that Poddar had bought a gun and was thinking about killing Tatiana Tarasoff, a fellow student who had rejected his advances. The psychologist consulted supervisors and asked campus police to have Poddar committed to a mental hospital, but Poddar persuaded the police to let him go. Two months later, when Tarasoff returned from abroad, Poddar killed her. Her parents sued, alleging that she or they should have been warned or Poddar should have been detained.

To continue reading this article, you must login.
  • Research health conditions
  • Check your symptoms
  • Prepare for a doctor's visit or test
  • Find the best treatments and procedures for you
  • Explore options for better nutrition and exercise
Learn more about the many benefits and features of joining Harvard Health Online »