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.

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