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When a doctor or a psychotherapist, in the exercise of his professional skill and knowledge, determines, or should determine, that a warning is essential to avert danger arising from the medical or psychological condition of his patient, he incurs a legal obligation to give that warning.
Prosenjit Poddar killed Tatiana Tarasoff. Tatiana's parents, plaintiffs Vitaly Tatiana and spouse, alleged that two months earlier, Poddar confided his intention to kill Tatiana to defendant Dr. Lawrence Moore, a psychologist employed by the Cowell Memorial Hospital at the University of California at Berkeley, which was operated by defendant Regents of the University of California ("Regents"). They alleged that on Moore's request, defendant campus police officers briefly detained Poddar, but released him when he appeared rational. They further claimed that defendant Dr. Harvey Powelson, Moore's superior, then directed that no further action be taken to detain Poddar. No one warned Tatiana of her peril. Plaintiffs filed a lawsuit against defendants and others in California state court, predicating liability on two grounds: (i) defendants' failure to warn plaintiffs of the impending danger; and (ii) defendants' failure to use reasonable care to bring about Poddar's confinement pursuant to the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act. Defendants, in turn, demurred, asserting that they owed no duty of reasonable care to Tatiana and that they were immune from suit under the California Tort Claims Act of 1963. Concluding that the facts alleged neither set forth causes of action against the doctors or police officers involved, nor against the Regents as their employer, the trial court sustained defendants' demurrers to plaintiffs' second amended complaint without leave to amend. Plaintiffs appealed.
(1) Did plaintiffs state a cause of action for failure to warn? (2) Did plaintiffs state a cause of action for failure to confine?
(1) Yes; (2) No.
The state supreme court affirmed in part and reversed in part the trial court's judgment and remanded the case for further proceedings. The court found that plaintiffs' complaint stated, or could be amended to state, a claim for negligent failure to warn. The court explained that although defendant doctors were not Tatiana's physicians, they nonetheless had a duty of care to her that arose out of their special relationship with Poddar. As physicians treating a mentally ill patient, the doctors had a duty to use reasonable care to warn Tatiana of the potential danger posed to her by Poddar. Moreover, the court observed, a second basis for liability arose from the fact that the doctors' bungled attempt to confine Poddar may have deterred him from seeking further therapy and aggravated the danger to Tatiana; having thus contributed to and partially created the danger, the doctors incurred the ensuing obligation to give warning. Defendants were not protected by governmental immunity because the failure to warn was not immunized as a discretionary omission. However, defendants could claim immunity from liability for their failure to confine Poddar. Government Code § 856 barred imposition of liability upon the doctors for their determination to refrain from detaining Poddar, and Welfare and Institutions Code § 5154 protected the police officers from civil liability for releasing Poddar after his brief confinement. Thus, plaintiffs could not state a cause of action for defendants' failure to detain or confine Poddar.