Fraser v. U.S., 15035

CourtSupreme Court of Connecticut
Citation674 A.2d 811,236 Conn. 625
Decision Date16 April 1996
Docket NumberNo. 15035,15035
Parties, 64 USLW 2724 Agnes FRASER, Executrix (Estate of Hector Fraser) v. UNITED STATES of America.

Michael P. Koskoff, with whom was Mark C. Durkin, Bridgeport, for appellant (plaintiff).

Carl J. Schuman, Assistant United States Attorney, with whom were John B. Hughes, Assistant United States Attorney, and, on the brief, Christopher F. Droney, United States Attorney, and Nancy L. Griffin, Assistant United States Attorney, for appellee (defendant).

Richard Blumenthal, Attorney General, and Susan Quinn Cobb, Assistant Attorney General, filed a brief for the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services as amicus curiae.

William I. Garfinkel, Brian R. Shagan and James Smart, Law Student Intern, filed a brief for the Mental Health Association of Connecticut, Inc., as amicus curiae.

Lansing E. Crane, New Haven, filed a brief for the Connecticut Psychiatric Society as amicus curiae.

Thomas A. Behrendt; William Emmett Dwyer, Cornwall Bridge and William B. Wynne, Bridgeport, filed a brief for the Center for Independent Living of Southwestern Connecticut et al. as amici curiae.


PETERS, Chief Justice.

In this case, certified from the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, we have agreed to decide whether, in the circumstances presented herein, psychotherapists undertaking the treatment of a psychiatric outpatient assumed a duty to exercise control over the patient to prevent the patient from committing an act of violence against a third person. The plaintiff, Agnes Fraser, executrix of the estate of Hector Fraser, brought an action in the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut against the defendant, the United States of America, acting through its employees at the West Haven Veterans Administration Medical Center (medical center). The plaintiff alleged that she was entitled to damages, under the Federal Tort Claims Act; 28 U.S.C. § 2671 et seq.; because the medical center's negligent treatment of John Doe, 1 an outpatient there, resulted in the fatal stabbing of her decedent. The plaintiff claimed that the medical center was negligent in its treatment of Doe because it had failed to warn others of his violent propensities and had failed to take reasonably necessary actions to control him in order to protect others. The District Court granted the defendant's motion for summary judgment because, in its view of the undisputed facts, the medical center owed no duty to the plaintiff's decedent. The plaintiff appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, which agreed with the District Court that the medical center had no duty to warn the plaintiff's decedent, but asked this court to decide whether the medical center had a duty to control Doe's conduct to avoid harm to the plaintiff's decedent. Pursuant to the applicable certification procedures; General Statutes § 51-199a; 2 we agreed to decide this issue. 3 We conclude that the medical center had no duty to control its outpatient, Doe, to avoid personal injury to unidentifiable third persons such as the plaintiff's decedent and, therefore, answer the certified question in the negative.

The record before the District Court establishes the following undisputed facts. Doe had a longstanding, friendly relationship with the plaintiff's decedent, Hector Fraser (Fraser). When Doe was a teenager, he worked at a floor covering store that Fraser then owned. After Doe's release from military service, he again worked for Fraser as a carpet installer. Both before and after his military service, Doe was a frequent visitor to the Fraser home. Although Doe spoke repeatedly of spies and carried a buck knife, he never threatened Fraser or any other member of the Fraser family. Nonetheless, on June 17, 1985, without apparent provocation, Doe stabbed Fraser approximately forty times and Fraser died the next day as a result of the stabbing.

At the time of the assault on Fraser, Doe was being treated as a psychiatric outpatient at the medical center. Doe's history of psychiatric care began while he was serving in the United States Marine Corps. He was discharged from the military in 1974 after being diagnosed as having schizo-affective schizophrenia manifested by paranoid delusions. Because of his psychosis and the accompanying delusions of violence, Doe thereafter was continuously under psychiatric care, sometimes for brief periods as an inpatient, but otherwise as an outpatient. Doe was an outpatient at the medical center from September, 1979, until the fatal assault on Fraser in 1985. Throughout his psychiatric therapy, Doe suffered from a variety of delusions, believing himself to be engaged in secret spy missions and in violent confrontations involving fights and killings. Doe's medical center records documented that he harbored these delusions, but documented no acts of violence or even threats on his part. They also documented his regular attendance at scheduled therapy sessions.

The medical center's records included information that Doe, in the past, had carried a knife and loaded guns. In 1976, he was arrested for carrying two loaded guns and a knife. 4 His psychotherapists had advised him to get rid of these weapons. Furthermore, Fraser's son had observed Doe carrying knives "as far back as 1981," but he had never known Doe to threaten Fraser or any other member of the Fraser family.

On June 6, 1985, Doe informed medical center staff members that he had stopped taking Haldol, his prescribed neuroleptic medication. His doctors persuaded him to take another neuroleptic, Trilafon, and told him to return in one week or sooner. On June 13, 1985, Doe appeared at the medical center as scheduled. At that appointment, he reported that he was feeling and sleeping better as a result of taking the new medication. Staff members were unaware of any deterioration in Doe's mental condition. Four days later, he committed the fatal assault on Fraser.

On this record, the Court of Appeals upheld the determination of the District Court that the plaintiff could not prevail on her claim that the medical center had a legal duty to warn Fraser that Doe would commit an act of violence against him. The Court of Appeals held that, "in the absence of any objective indicia of a patient's propensity to cause harm," summary judgment had properly been granted on this cause of action. The Court of Appeals reserved for us, however, the merits of the plaintiff's alternate cause of action premised on a breach of a duty to control, and this is the basis for the certified question that we agreed to answer.

The question that we certified is whether, in the circumstances of this case, a psychotherapist has a duty to control an outpatient to prevent the outpatient from causing harm to a third person. In its broader form, the certified question addresses the legal consequences of outpatient psychotherapy, specifically whether the relationship between a psychotherapist and an outpatient is properly characterized as the kind of special custodial relationship that imposes on the psychotherapist the duty to control the behavior of the outpatient to prevent the outpatient from causing bodily harm to third persons. See Tarasoff v. Regents of University of California, 17 Cal.3d 425, 431, 131 Cal.Rptr. 14, 551 P.2d 334 (1976) (imposing duty on psychiatrists to protect foreseeable victims of outpatient); see also 2 Restatement (Second), Torts § 319 (1965). 5 In its narrower form, the certified question addresses the legal consequences of the psychotherapists' failure to control the behavior of an outpatient in the circumstances of this case.

Common law prudence counsels that we should refrain from deciding the broader question. As the Court of Appeals observed in certifying the question of law to us in this case, litigation of this kind does not arise frequently. We have no compelling precedents on which to draw, and courts in other jurisdictions have not arrived at a consensus. Finally, even if we were to resolve the broader question in favor of recognizing a special relationship, we would still have to decide the narrower question of the scope of the duty arising from such a relationship. We, therefore, will confine our discussion to the question of whether a psychotherapist has a duty to exercise control to prevent an outpatient, who was not known to have been dangerous, from inflicting bodily harm on a victim who was neither readily identifiable nor within a foreseeable class of victims. 6

Our decision is premised on these factual circumstances because they are the circumstances that have been found to exist in the relevant decision of the federal court in this case. In deciding that the plaintiff had failed to establish a factual predicate for a duty to warn, the Court of Appeals expressly concluded that the record demonstrated "the absence of any objective indicia of [Doe's] propensity to cause harm." The Court of Appeals rejected the plaintiff's argument that a jury question was raised by expert testimony that suggested that Doe's psychotherapists should have engaged in a more searching inquiry to discover that Doe had become dangerous either to himself or to others. 7 In effect, the Court of Appeals upheld the conclusion of the District Court that "even viewing the facts most favorably to the plaintiff on the defendant's motion for summary judgment, the evidence did not show that it was foreseeable that Doe would commit an act of violence against [Fraser]." For the purpose of deciding the certified question of law, namely, whether, in the circumstances of this case, the psychotherapists had a duty to control Doe, we take the underlying facts and circumstances to be the same as those that the federal court concluded were determinative with respect to the...

To continue reading

Request your trial
75 cases
  • Lodge v. Arett Sales Corp., s. 15832
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Connecticut
    • August 25, 1998
    ...of Education, supra, 246 Conn. 456, 717 A.2d 1177; Zamstein v. Marvasti, supra, 240 Conn. at 561, 692 A.2d 781; Fraser v. United States, 236 Conn. 625, 634-35, 674 A.2d 811 (1996); Maloney v. Conroy, 208 Conn. 392, 403-404, 545 A.2d 1059 (1988). If one who initiates a false alarm may be lia......
  • Iacurci v. Sax, 19119.
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Connecticut
    • September 30, 2014
    ...into a question of fact. Bass ex rel. Bass v. Miss Porter's School, 738 F.Supp.2d 307, 330 (D.Conn.2010) ; cf. Fraser v. United States, 236 Conn. 625, 632–33, 674 A.2d 811 (1996) (“[d]uty is a legal conclusion about relationships between individuals” that is “determined by the circumstances......
  • Mueller v. Tepler, 18939.
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Connecticut
    • July 16, 2014
    ...of committing the abuse”); see also Mendillo v. Board of Education, supra, at 483, 717 A.2d 1177, citing Fraser v. United States, 236 Conn. 625, 634–35, 674 A.2d 811 (1996) (psychotherapist owes no duty of care to third party injured by psychotherapist's outpatient “based partly on the risk......
  • Jarmie v. Troncale, 18358.
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Connecticut
    • September 17, 2012
    ...prevent injuries caused by fainting while third party was observing medical procedure performed on her sister); Fraser v. United States, 236 Conn. 625, 626, 674 A.2d 811 (1996) (considering whether psychotherapist owed duty to third party harmed by patient to control and prevent patient fro......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT