Proenjit Poddar – a young man who studied at the
University of California’s Berkeley Campus, held strong affections for a
certain young woman named Tatiana Tarasoff. Both of them dated for quiet some
time, but Tarasoff eventually ended their relationship due to her favoring
other men. Because of this, Poddar became depressed and started to stalk
Tarasoff, and so decided to seek psychotherapy from Dr. Lawrence Moore – the
psychologist 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, and
concluded that Poddar’s pathological attachment to Tarasoff already posed a
significant danger. Dr. Moore alerted and notified the campus police both
verbally and in writing, stating that Proenjit Poddar posed a threat against
Tarasoff. Dr. Moore suggested that the police should take Poddar and be placed
under evaluation in a psychiatric hospital.
The police in turn, detained and interrogated Poddar.
However, they concluded Poddar was rational and posed no threat. The police
released him after they secured a promise from Poddar that he will stay away
from Tarasoff. After his release, Poddar
never returned for further psychotherapy, and eventually discontinuing his
treatment. Dr.Moore, who examined Poddar never got to warn Tarasoff and her
family about the possible danger they were in. Poddar continued stalking
Tarasoff again and eventually, two months after – on Oct 27 of 1969, he
attacked Tarasoff. First, he shot her
using 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 family
of 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 was
to his client – Poddar, rather than any third party. However, the Tarasoff
family appealed to the Supreme Court of California, and the second hearing ruled
out that mental health professionals do have a duty to warn. The court released
the police from liability, but the therapists were then found liable. The court
stated that when a therapist determines that his patient poses a serious danger
to another person, then he/she is obligated to protect the intended victim
against the danger. This duty may require the therapist to take various steps,
including warning the intended victim, notifying the police, or taking whatever
steps that are reasonably necessary.
It is mandated by the ethical standards that mental
health professionals have a duty to protect the public from the potential
danger their clients pose. People have rights to sue mental health
professionals who fails to warn imminent threat against the public. However,
some argue that the duty to warn other parties can compromise the confidentiality
of the therapist and the client. Siegel (1979), the former president of the
American Psychological Association, also argued that if only Poddar’s
psychologist abided by the sworn confidentiality, Poddar would not have been
detained by the police and instead would have continued his psychotherapy, and
never came to harm Tarasoff. He further argues that had it not been for
Dr.Moore who saw his client as “dangerous”, then there would be no liability
for “failure to warn”. It is also important to note that if clients suspect
that their confidences are not protected and can be disclosed, they avoid
seeking treatment. Therefore, clients who fails to return for therapy but are
strongly in need of treatment poses more danger and increased risk – like in
The responsibility or the duty to warn however, is
governed by the therapist’s knowledge of knowing the client’s dangerousness. The
therapist needs to exercise skill, knowledge, and care in making initial
determination of their client’s violent tendencies. If the therapist sees and
determines foreseeable threat, and believes that the client may possibly
inflict serious harm to others – then the therapist has a duty to warn or
protect that intended victim. Therefore, therapists should be careful to inform
their clients about the limits of confidentiality. Professionals cannot always
accurately predict the client tendencies of people, but still it is in their
obligation to not only warn, but also protect the public and also their client
from potential harm.