Tarasoff v. The University Of California (1976)

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Note: This is the second of two rulings in this famous case. The first ruling in 1974 (Tarasoff v. Regents of the University of Califronia, 529 P.2d 553) established for psychotherapists a “duty to warn” prospective victims. This subsequent ruling, though, clarified the concept as a “duty to protect” which includes actions other than warning the potential victim. This is a California case which does not cover Massachusetts, of course. However, the principle of duty to protect has been adopted in statute in Massachusetts.

S.F. No. 23042

Supreme Court of California

17 Cal. 3d 425; 551 P.2d 334; 131 Cal. Rptr. 14; 1976 Cal. LEXIS 297; 83 A.L.R.3d 1166

July 1, 1976


In a wrongful death action against the Regents of the University of California, psychotherapists at a university hospital, and campus policemen, by parents of a girl who was killed by a man who had confided his intention to kill her to one of the therapists, the trial court sustained defendants’ demurrers to the complaint without leave to amend and entered judgment in favor of defendants. The complaint alleged that the police had briefly detained the killer at the request of the therapist but had released him when he appeared rational, that the therapist’s superior then directed that no further action be taken to detain the man, and that no one warned plaintiffs of the girl’s peril. (Superior Court of Alameda County, No. 405694, Robert L. Bostick, Judge.)

The Supreme Court affirmed the judgment in favor of the police officers and reversed the judgment in favor of the therapists and the regents. The court held that plaintiffs could amend their complaints to state a cause of action against defendant therapists by asserting that they had in fact determined that the daughter’s killer presented a serious danger of violence to her, or pursuant to the standards of their profession should have so determined, but nevertheless failed to exercise reasonable care to protect her from that danger. It held that when a therapist determines, or pursuant to the standards of his profession should determine, that his patient presents a serious danger of violence to another, he incurs an obligation to use reasonable care to protect the intended victim against such danger. The court further held that the decision whether to warn was not a discretionary act within the immunity provisions of Gov. Code, § 820.2, as judicially interpreted. As to plaintiffs’ claim of a breach of the therapists’ duty by reason of their failure to procure the killer’s confinement, however, the court held that they were insulated from liability by the provision of Gov. Code, § 856, which affords public entities and their employees absolute protection from liability for “any injury resulting from determining in accordance with any applicable enactment . . . whether to confine a person for mental illness.” The demurrers of defendant police officers were held properly sustained without leave to amend in that the complaint alleged no special relationship between the officers and either the killer or the victim that would impose a duty to warn of the danger. With respect to the officers’ release of the killer, the court held that the complaint established immunity under Welf. & Inst. Code, § 5154, which declares that “the professional person in charge of the facility providing 72-hour treatment and evaluation, his designee, and the peace officer responsible for the detainment of the person shall not be held civilly or criminally liable for any action by a person released at or before the end of 72 hours.” In holding that no cause of action for exemplary damages was stated, the court pointed out that California statutes and decisions have been interpreted to bar the recovery of punitive damages in a wrongful death action. (Opinion by Tobriner, J., with Wright, C. J., Sullivan and Richardson, JJ., concurring. Separate concurring and dissenting opinion by Mosk, J. Separate dissenting opinion by Clark, J., with McComb, J., concurring.)

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