Tarasoff v. Regents of University of California

Decision Date23 December 1974
Docket NumberS.F. 23042
Citation13 Cal.3d 177,529 P.2d 553,118 Cal.Rptr. 129
CourtCalifornia Supreme Court
Parties, 529 P.2d 553 Vitaly TARASOFF et al., Plaintiffs and Appellants, v. The REGENTS OF the UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA et al., Defendants and Respondents.

Robert E. Cartwright, San Francisco, Floyd A. Demanes, Burlingame, William H. Lally, Sacramento, Edward I. Pollock, Los Angeles, Leonard Sacks, Pico Rivera, Stephen I. Zetterberg, Claremont, Sanford M. Gage, Beverly Hills, Robert O. Angle and David R. Baum, amici curiae, for plaintiffs and appellants.

Evelle J. Younger, Atty. Gen., James E. Sabine, Asst. Atty. Gen., John M. Morrison and Thomas K. McGuire, Deputy Attys. Gen., Hanna, Brophy, MacLean, McAleer & Jensen, James V. Burchell, San Francisco, Ericksen, Ericksen, Lynch & Mackenroth, Ericksen, Ericksen, Lynch, Younger & Mackenroth, Oakland, William R. Morton, Oakland, and Albert H. Sennett, San Francisco, for defendants and respondents.

TOBRINER, Justice.

On October 27, 1969, Prosenjit Poddar killed Tatiana Tarasoff. 1 Plaintiffs, Tatiana's parents, allege that two months earlier Poddar confided his intention to kill Tatiana to Dr. Lawrence Moore, a psychologist employed by the Cowell Memorial Hospital at the University of California at Berkeley. They allege that on Moore's request, the campus police briefly detained Poddar, but released him when he appeared rational. They further claim that Dr. Harvey Powelson, Moore's superior, then directed that no further action be taken to detain Poddar. No one warned Tatiana of her peril.

Concluding that these facts neither set forth causes of action against the therapists and policement involved, nor against the Regents of the University of California as their employer, the superior court sustained defendants' demurrers to plaintiffs' second amended complaints without leave to amend. 2 This appeal ensued.

Plaintiffs' complaints predicate liability on two grounds: defendants' failure to warn plaintiffs of the impending danger and their failure to use reasonable care to bring about Poddar's confinement pursuant to the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act (Welf. & Inst.Code, § 5000ff.) Defendants, in turn, assert that they owed no duty of reasonable care to Tatiana and that they are immune from suit under the California Tort Claims Act of 1963 (Gov.Code, § 810ff.).

We shall explain that defendant therapists, merely because Tatiana herself was not their patient, cannot escape liability for failing to exercise due care to warn the endangered Tatiana or those who reasonably could have been expected to notify her of her peril. 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. Primarily, the relationship between defendant therapists and Poddar as their patient imposes the described duty to warn. We shall point out that a second basis for liability lies in the fact that defendants' 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, defendants incur the ensuing obligation to give the warning.

We reject defendants' asserted defense of governmental immunity; no specific statutory provision shields them from liability for failure to warn, and Government Code section 820.2 does not protect defendants' conduct as an exercise of discretion. We conclude that plaintiffs' complaints state, or can be amended to state, a cause of action against defendants for negligent failure to warn.

Defendants, however, may properly claim immunity from liability for their failure to confine Poddar. Government Code section 856 bars imposition of liability upon defendant therapists for their determination to refrain from detaining Poddar and Welfare and Institutions Code section 5154 protects defendant police officers from civil liability for releasing Poddar after his brief confinement. We therefore conclude that plaintiffs cannot state a cause of action for defendants' failure to detain Poddar. Since plaintiffs base their claim to punitive damages against defendant Powelson solely upon Powelson's failure to bring about such detention, not upon Powelson's failure to give the above described warnings, that claim likewise fails to state a cause of action.

1. Plaintiffs' complaints.

Plaintiffs, Tatiana's mother and father, filed separate but virtually identical second amended complaints. The issue before us on this appeal is whether those complaints now state, or can be amended to state, causes of action against defendants. We therefore begin by setting forth the pertinent allegations of the complaints. 3

Plaintiffs' first cause of action, entitled "Failure to Detain a Dangerous Patient," alleges that on August 20, 1969, Poddar was a voluntary outpatient receiving therapy at Cowell Memorial Hospital. Poddar informed Moore, his therapist, that he was going to kill an unnamed girl, readily identifiable as Tatiana, when she returned hom from spending the summer in Brazil. Moore, with the concurrence of Dr. Gold, who had initially examined Poddar, and Dr. Yandell, assistant to the director of the department of psychiatry, decided that Poddar should be committed for observation in a mental hospital. Moore orally notified Officers Atkinson and Teel of the campus police that he would request commitment. He then sent a letter to Police Chief William Beall requesting the assistance of the police department in securing Poddar's confinement.

Officers Atkinson, Brownrigg, and Halleran took Poddar into custody, but, satisfied that Poddar was rational, released him on his promise to stay away from Tatiana. Powelson, director of the department of psychiatry at Cowell Memorial Hospital, then asked the police to return Moore's letter, directed that all copies of the letter and notes that Moore had taken as therapist be destroyed, and "ordered no action to place Prosenjit Poddar in 72-hour treatment and evaluation facility."

Plaintiffs' second cause of action, entitled "Failure to Warn On a Dangerous Patient," incorporates the allegations of the first cause of action, but adds the assertion that defendants negligently permitted Poddar to be released from police custody without "notifying the parents of Tatiana Tarasoff that their daughter was in grave danger from Posenjit Poddar." Poddar persuaded Tatiana's brother to share an apartment with him near Tatiana's residence; shortly after her return from Brazil, Poddar went to her residence and killed her.

Plaintiffs' third cause of action, entitled "Abandonment of a Dangerous Patient," seeks $10,000 punitive damages against defendant Powelson. Incorporating the crucial allegations of the first cause of action, plaintiffs charge that Powelson "did the things herein alleged with intent to abandon a dangerous patient, and said acts were done maliciously and oppressively."

Plaintiff's fourth cause of action, for "Breach of Primary Duty to Patient and the Public" states essentially the same allegations as the first cause of action, but seeks to characterize defendants' conduct as a breach of duty to safeguard their patient and the public. Since such conclusory labels add nothing to the factual allegations of the complaint, the first and fourth causes of action are legally indistinguishable.

2. Plaintiffs can state a cause of action for negligent failure to warn.

The second cause of action in plaintiffs' complaints alleges that Tatiana's death proximately resulted from defendants' negligent failure to warn plaintiffs of Poddar's intention to kill Tatiana and claims general and special damages. Ordinarily such allegations of negligence, proximate causation, and damages would establish a cause of action. (See Dillon v. Legg (1968) 68 Cal.2d 728, 733-734, 69 Cal.Rptr. 72, 441 P.2d 912.) Defendants, however, contend that in the circumstances of the present case they owed no duty of care to Tatiana or her parents and that, in the absence of such duty, they were free to act in careless disregard of Tatiana's life and safety.

In analyzing this contention, we bear in mind that legal duties are not discoverable facts of nature, but merely conclusory expressions that, in cases of a particular type, liability should be imposed for damage done. As stated in Dillon v. Legg, supra, at page 734, 69 Cal.Rptr. at page 76, 441 P.2d at page 916: "The assertion that liability must ... be denied because defendant bears no 'duty' to plaintiff 'begs the essential question--whether the plaintiff's interests are entitled to legal protection against the defendant's conduct.... [Duty] is not sacrosanct in itself, but only an expression of the sum total of those considerations of policy which lead the law to say that the particular plaintiff is entitled to protection.' (Prosser, Law of Torts [3d ed. 1964] at pp. 332-333.)" Rowland v. Christian (1968) 69 Cal.2d 108, 113, 70 Cal.Rptr. 97, 100, 443 P.2d 561, 564, listed the principal considerations: "the foreseeability of harm to the plaintiff, the degree of certainty that the plaintiff suffered injury, the closeness of the connection between the defendant's conduct and the injury suffered, the moral blame attached to the defendant's conduct, the policy of preventing future harm, the extent of the burden to the defendant and consequences to the community of imposing a duty to exercise care with resulting liability for breach, and the availability, cost, and prevalence of insurance for the risk involved." 4

Although under the common law, as a general rule, one person owed no duty to control the conduct of another 5 (Richards v. Stanley (1954) 43 Cal.2d 60, 65, 271 P.2d 23; Wright v. Arcade School...

To continue reading

Request your trial
15 cases
  • Mahomes-Vinson v. US
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — District of Kansas
    • October 4, 1990
    ... ... of a psychiatrist to protect against the conduct of a patient is Tarasoff v. Regents of Univ. of Cal., 17 Cal.3d 425, 131 Cal.Rptr. 14, 551 P.2d ... situation where the therapist knew the patient's intention, the California Supreme Court's holding encompasses situations where the therapist, under ... ...
  • Devlin v. Greiner
    • United States
    • New Jersey Superior Court
    • January 28, 1977
    ...a negligent insurance agent liable to a party injured by defendant's uninsured client); Tarasoff v. Regents of University of California, 13 Cal.3d 177, 118 Cal.Rptr. 129, 529 P.2d 553 (Sup.Ct.1974); 17 Cal.3d 425, 131 Cal.Rptr. 14, 551 P.2d 334 (Sup.Ct.1976) (holding psychotherapist liable ......
  • Doe v. Roe
    • United States
    • New York Supreme Court
    • November 21, 1977
    ...a psychiatrist to give warning where a patient clearly presents a danger to others (Tarasoff v. Regents of the University of California, 13 Cal.3d 177, 118 Cal.Rptr. 129, 131, 529 P.2d 553, at p. 555, 1974), to disclose the existence of a contagious disease (P.H.L. 2101; Hofmann v. Blackmon......
  • McIntosh v. Milano
    • United States
    • New Jersey Superior Court
    • June 12, 1979
    ...the Appellate Division.2 This decision by the California Supreme Court vacated its prior opinion, reported at 13 Cal.3d 177, 118 Cal.Rptr. 129, 529 P.2d 553 (1974) (Tarasoff I), after a rehearing.3 Included in defendant's appendix is a copy of the Amicus curiae brief of the American Psychia......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
4 books & journal articles
  • Back From Wonderland: A Linguistic Approach to Duties Arising From Threats of Physical Violence
    • United States
    • Capital University Law Review No. 37-1, September 2008
    • September 1, 2008
    ...initial decision, almost thirty-five years _______________________________________________________ 21C.f. id. at 92. 22C.f. id. at 110. 23529 P.2d 553 (Cal. 1974) [hereinafter Tarasoff I], vacated, 551 P.2d 334 (Cal. 1976) [hereinafter Tarasoff II]. The Tarasoff case has been the subject of......
  • Ethically Speaking
    • United States
    • Wyoming State Bar Wyoming Lawyer No. 30-1, February 2007
    • Invalid date
    ...P.2d 334 (Cal. 1976). 9 The facts are described at 551 P.2d at 341. 10 Id. at 339. 11 Tarasoff v. Regents of University of California, 13 Cal.3d 177, 529 P.2d 553, 118 Cal.Rptr. 129 (Cal. Dec 23, 1974) (NO. S. F. 23042), opinion vacated by Tarasoff v. Regents of University of California, 17......
  • Privileged Communication in Therapy: Special Problems for the Family and Couples Therapist
    • United States
    • Wiley Family Process No. 20-1, March 1981
    • March 1, 1981
    ...that might allow prevention of certain imminent unlawful acts (e.g., Tarasoff v.Regents of University of California, 13 C3d 177, 118 Cal. Rptr. 129, 529 P.2d 553, vacated, 131 Cal. Rptr. 14, 551 P.2d 334[1976]), although it may authorize withholding information pertaining to past unlawful a......
  • The Duty to Warn and the Liability of Mental Health Care Providers
    • United States
    • Colorado Bar Association Colorado Lawyer No. 16-1, January 1987
    • Invalid date
    ...to conduct evaluations for dangerousness which meet the standards of the profession. NOTES _____________________ Footnotes: 1. 118 Cal.Rptr. 129, 529 P.2d 553 (1974). See also, Tarasoff v. Regents of the University of California, 17 Cal.3d 425, 551 P.2d 334 (1976) (hereafter, "Tarasoff II")......

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