Proenjit Poddar – a young man who studied at theUniversity of California’s Berkeley Campus, held strong affections for acertain young woman named Tatiana Tarasoff.
Both of them dated for quiet sometime, but Tarasoff eventually ended their relationship due to her favoringother men. Because of this, Poddar became depressed and started to stalkTarasoff, and so decided to seek psychotherapy from Dr. Lawrence Moore – thepsychologist at the university’s student health facility. During Poddar’s final therapy session with Dr. Moore,he confessed his intentions to purchase a gun in order to kill Tarasoff. Dr.Moore then diagnosed Poddar with an acute paranoid schizophrenic reaction, andconcluded that Poddar’s pathological attachment to Tarasoff already posed asignificant danger. Dr.
Moore alerted and notified the campus police bothverbally and in writing, stating that Proenjit Poddar posed a threat againstTarasoff. Dr. Moore suggested that the police should take Poddar and be placedunder evaluation in a psychiatric hospital.
The police in turn, detained and interrogated Poddar.However, they concluded Poddar was rational and posed no threat. The policereleased him after they secured a promise from Poddar that he will stay awayfrom Tarasoff. After his release, Poddarnever returned for further psychotherapy, and eventually discontinuing histreatment. Dr.Moore, who examined Poddar never got to warn Tarasoff and herfamily about the possible danger they were in. Poddar continued stalkingTarasoff again and eventually, two months after – on Oct 27 of 1969, heattacked Tarasoff.
First, he shot herusing a pellet gun and then stabbed her to death. Ms.Tarasoff’s family sued Dr.Moore, the university,and the police – stating that they had a duty to warn Tarasoff and her familyof the danger, and that they should have persisted on Poddar’s detainment.Initially, the trial court dismissed the case, arguing that Dr.Moore’s duty wasto his client – Poddar, rather than any third party. However, the Tarasofffamily appealed to the Supreme Court of California, and the second hearing ruledout that mental health professionals do have a duty to warn.
The court releasedthe police from liability, but the therapists were then found liable. The courtstated that when a therapist determines that his patient poses a serious dangerto another person, then he/she is obligated to protect the intended victimagainst the danger. This duty may require the therapist to take various steps,including warning the intended victim, notifying the police, or taking whateversteps that are reasonably necessary. It is mandated by the ethical standards that mentalhealth professionals have a duty to protect the public from the potentialdanger their clients pose. People have rights to sue mental healthprofessionals who fails to warn imminent threat against the public.
However,some argue that the duty to warn other parties can compromise the confidentialityof the therapist and the client. Siegel (1979), the former president of theAmerican Psychological Association, also argued that if only Poddar’spsychologist abided by the sworn confidentiality, Poddar would not have beendetained by the police and instead would have continued his psychotherapy, andnever came to harm Tarasoff. He further argues that had it not been forDr.Moore who saw his client as “dangerous”, then there would be no liabilityfor “failure to warn”. It is also important to note that if clients suspectthat their confidences are not protected and can be disclosed, they avoidseeking treatment. Therefore, clients who fails to return for therapy but arestrongly in need of treatment poses more danger and increased risk – like inPoddar’s case. The responsibility or the duty to warn however, isgoverned by the therapist’s knowledge of knowing the client’s dangerousness.
Thetherapist needs to exercise skill, knowledge, and care in making initialdetermination of their client’s violent tendencies. If the therapist sees anddetermines foreseeable threat, and believes that the client may possiblyinflict serious harm to others – then the therapist has a duty to warn orprotect that intended victim. Therefore, therapists should be careful to informtheir clients about the limits of confidentiality. Professionals cannot alwaysaccurately predict the client tendencies of people, but still it is in theirobligation to not only warn, but also protect the public and also their clientfrom potential harm.