Tarasoff v. Regents of the University of California

Tarasoff v. Regents of the University of California, 17 Cal. 3d 425, 551 P.2d 334, 131 Cal. Rptr. 14 (Cal. 1976), was a case in which the Supreme Court of California held that mental health professionals have a duty to protect individuals who are being threatened with bodily harm by a patient. The original 1974 decision mandated warning the threatened individual, but a 1976 rehearing of the case by the California Supreme Court called for a "duty to protect" the intended victim. The professional may discharge the duty in several ways, including notifying police, warning the intended victim, and/or taking other reasonable steps to protect the threatened individual.

Tarasoff v. Regents of the University of California
Seal of the Supreme Court of California
Decided July 1, 1976
Full case nameVitali Tarasoff, et al., Plaintiffs-Petitioners v. Regents of the University of California, et al., Defendants-Respondents.
Citation(s)17 Cal. 3d 425, 551 P.2d 334, 131 Cal. Rptr. 14
Case history
Prior historyAppeal from sustained demurrer
Psychotherapists have a duty to protect an individual they reasonably believe to be at risk of injury on the basis of a patient's confidential statements.
Court membership
Chief JusticeDonald Wright
Associate JusticesRaymond L. Sullivan, Marshall F. McComb, Matthew O. Tobriner, William P. Clark, Jr., Stanley Mosk, Frank K. Richardson
Case opinions
MajorityTobriner, joined by Wright, Sullivan, Richardson
DissentClark , joined by McComb


Prosenjit Poddar was a student from Bengal, India.[1] He entered the University of California, Berkeley as a graduate student in September 1967 and resided at International House. In the fall of 1968, he attended folk dancing classes at the International House, and it was there that he met Tatiana Tarasoff. They dated, but apparently had different ideas about the relationship. He assumed their relationship was serious. This view was not shared by Tarasoff who, upon learning of his feelings, told him that she was involved with other men and that she was not interested in entering into an intimate relationship with him. This gave rise to feelings of resentment in Poddar. He began to stalk her.

After this rebuff, Poddar underwent a severe emotional crisis. He became depressed and neglected his appearance, his studies, and his health. He kept to himself, speaking disjointedly and often weeping. This condition persisted, with steady deterioration, throughout the spring and into the summer of 1969. Poddar had occasional meetings with Tarasoff during this period and tape-recorded their various conversations to try to find out why she did not love him.

During the summer of 1969, Tarasoff went to South America. After her departure, Poddar began to improve and at the suggestion of a friend sought psychological assistance. Prosenjit Poddar was a patient of Dr. Lawrence Moore, a psychologist at UC Berkeley's Cowell Memorial Hospital in 1969. Poddar confided his intent to kill Tarasoff. Dr. Moore requested that the campus police detain Poddar, writing that, in his opinion, Poddar was suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, acute and severe. The psychologist recommended that the defendant be civilly committed as a dangerous person. Poddar was detained but shortly thereafter released, as he appeared rational. Dr. Moore's supervisor, Dr. Harvey Powelson, then ordered that Poddar not be subject to further detention.

In October, after Tarasoff had returned, Poddar stopped seeing his psychologist. Neither Tarasoff nor her parents received any warning of the threat. Poddar then befriended Tarasoff's brother, even moving in with him. Several weeks later, on October 27, 1969, Poddar carried out the plan he had confided to his psychologist, stabbing and killing Tarasoff. Tarasoff's parents then sued Moore and various other employees of the university.

Poddar was subsequently convicted of second-degree murder, but the conviction was later appealed and overturned on the grounds that the jury was inadequately instructed. A second trial was not held, and Poddar was released on the condition that he would return to India.[2][page needed]

Opinion of the courtEdit

The California Supreme Court found that a mental health professional has a duty not only to a patient, but also to individuals who are specifically being threatened by a patient. This decision has since been adopted by most states in the U.S. and is widely influential in jurisdictions outside the U.S. as well.

Justice Mathew O. Tobriner wrote the holding in the majority opinion. "We conclude that the public policy favoring protection of the confidential character of patient-psychotherapist communications must yield to the extent to which disclosure is essential to avert danger to others. The protective privilege ends where the public peril begins."[3](p442)

Justice Mosk wrote a partial dissent,[3](p451) arguing that (1) the rule in future cases should be one of the actual subjective prediction of violence on the part of the psychiatrist, which occurred in this case, not one based on objective professional standards, because predictions are inherently unreliable; and (2) the psychiatrists notified the police, who were presumably in a better position to protect Tarasoff than she would be to protect herself.

Justice Clark dissented, quoting a law review article that stated, "…the very practice of psychiatry depends upon the reputation in the community that the psychiatrist will not tell."[3](p458)[4](p188)

Subsequent developmentsEdit

As of 2012, a duty to warn or protect is mandated and codified in legislative statutes of 23 states, while the duty is not codified in a statute but is present in the common law supported by precedent in 10 states.[5] 11 states have a permissive duty, and six states are described as having no statutes or case law offering guidance.[5]

Despite initial commentators predictions of negative consequences for psychotherapy because of the Tarasoff ruling, court decisions show otherwise. An analysis of 70 cases that went to appellate courts between 1985 and 2006 found that only four of the six rulings in favor of the plaintiff cited Tarasoff statutes; courts ruled in favor of the defendant in 46 cases and sent 17 cases back to lower courts.[5]:475 However, courts do rule in victims' favor in clear-cut cases of failure to warn or protect, such as the case of a psychiatrist who committed rape during a child psychiatry fellowship, for which he was recommended even after telling his own psychiatrist about his sexual attraction to children.[5]:475

In 2018, the Court held that universities should protect students in the Regents of University of California v. Superior Court of Los Angeles County.[6][7]


  1. ^ People v. Poddar, 518 P.2d 342 (Supreme Court of California February 7, 1974).
  2. ^ Munson, Ronald, ed. (2008). Intervention and Reflection: Basic Issues in Medical Ethics (8th ed.). Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth. ISBN 978-0-495-09502-6. OCLC 156891897.
  3. ^ a b c Tarasoff v. Regents of University of California, 17 Cal.3d 425 (Supreme Court of California July 1, 1976).
  4. ^ Slovenko, Ralph (Spring 1960). "Psychiatry and a Second Look at the Medical Privilege". Wayne Law Review. 6: 175.
  5. ^ a b c d Johnson, Rebecca; Persad, Govind; Sisti, Dominic (December 2014). "The Tarasoff Rule: The Implications of Interstate Variation and Gaps in Professional Training". Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law. 42 (4): 469–477. PMID 25492073.
  6. ^ THANAWALA, SUDHIN (2018-03-22). "Court: California colleges have duty to protect students". The Sacramento Bee. ISSN 0890-5738. Retrieved 2018-03-26.
  7. ^ "California Supreme Court rules alumna can sue UCLA for 2009 stabbing". dailybruin.com. Retrieved 2018-03-26.

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