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Law School Case Brief

Dunkle v. Food Serv. E. - 400 Pa. Super. 58, 582 A.2d 1342 (1990)

Rule:

A psychologist (or psychiatrist) owes no duty to warn or otherwise protect a non-patient where the patient has not threatened to inflict harm on a particular individual. 

Facts:

This controversial appeal involves the strangulation death of Senie Eyer. What began as a simple action in negligence against the store where Eyer was attacked escalated into an attempt to hold the perpetrator's treating psychologist, counselor, and doctor liable in damages for failing to warn the victim of their patient's propensity towards violence. After her boyfriend strangled the decedent, plaintiff administrator brought an action against appellants, grocery store and food service organization, for negligence. The boyfriend had been receiving psychiatric care and counseling from appellees for a schizophrenia form disorder. The trial court granted appellees' summary judgment motions and dismissed the complaint to join because appellees had no legal duty to protect the decedent from their patient's hostility. 

Issue:

Did the defendant’s psychologist, counselor, and doctor have any legal duty to protect the plaintiffs' decedent from their patient's hostility?

Answer:

No

Conclusion:

The court affirmed the trial court's judgment and held that appellees had no duty to warn or otherwise protect a non-patient where the patient did not threaten to inflict harm on a particular individual. According to the court, appellees did not share a "special relationship" with the decedent that justified the imposition of a duty to warn, and the patient did not communicate any inclination to harm the decedent. Moreover, the fact that the decedent lived with the patient did not lead to the inference that she was the most like target of his violent tendencies.

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