Tarasoff Revisited: Nebraska Court Rejects Duty Of Psychiatrist After Patient Murders Girlfriend

There’s a tragic situation out of Omaha that has led to a remarkable decision over tort liability for psychiatrists. The situation involves a patient, Mikael Loyd, who had been admitted to Lasting Hope Recovery Center after he told authorities that he wanted his aid in killing his mum. Psychiatrist Jeana Benton decided that he wasn’t a danger at the hospital and he was released. Then he murdered his girlfriend, Melissa Rodriguez, who broke up with him throughout his hospital stay.  Her parents, Angela Rodriguez and Adan Rodriguez, hailed Lasting Hope along with Benton’s employer, University of Nebraska Medical Center Physicians, but the Nebraska Supreme Court affirmed the dismissal of this action Because of a lack of any legal duty to warn or protect the girlfriend.
Melissa’s body was discovered the day after the launch of Loyd, who had returned to Lasting Hope and was detained there. Loyd was afterwards found incompetent to stand trial.
At the 1974 case, Prosinjit Podder, an Indian school student at Berkeley, fell in love with Tatiana Tarasoff. When she stated that she wanted to date other guys, Podder went to counselling in the University Health Service and is treated by psychologist, and Dr. Lawrence Moore. After he told Moore that he wanted to find a gun and kill Tarasoff, Moore sent a letter to campus authorities who informed Podder and determined that he wasn’t a danger. Podder then went ahead and killed Tarasoff.
Justice Mathew O. Tobriner held that”… the confidential character of patient-psychotherapist communications must return to the extent that disclosure is necessary to avert threat to others. The protective privilege ends where the public peril begins” Consequently, the hospital was held accountable for the criminal actions of a third party — something that generally (although not necessarily ) cuts proximate causation. In addition, it rejects strong arguments made by physicians that such liability would create a frightening effect on counselling. A high number of individuals often express their rage by focusing on individuals and stating an intent to”kill that man.” In the vast majority of these circumstances, the open disclosure has been addressed and defused. But if the patient knows that the doctor might have to tell authorities, these feelings are less likely to be expressed and addressed.
We’ve discussed decisions stretching Tarasoff. But some states have passed laws limiting its effect.

[A] psychologist is liable for failing to warn of and protect from a patient’s threatened violent behavior, or neglecting to predict and warn of and protect from a patient’s violent behavior, when the patient has communicated to the psychiatrist a significant threat of physical violence against himself, herself, or a reasonably identifiable victim or victims. The duty to frighten or to take sensible precautions to give protection from violent behavior will arise only under these limited cases… and will be discharged from the psychiatrist if reasonable efforts are designed to communicate the danger to the victim or victims and also to your law enforcement agency.

It afterwards added the clarification the “`[A] duty to protect and warn arises only if the information communicated to the psychiatrist directs the psychiatrist to believe that his or her patient poses a significant threat of grave bodily harm .'”
In this case, the court ruled that that burden wasn’t satisfied.  The court distinguished between the duty to the mother Instead of the girlfriend:

Here, it is uncontroverted that Loyd never actually communicated to Benton that he intended to damage Melissa. We noticed in Rodriguez I that if the Special Administrators’ claim were supported by facts that Loyd had hauled to Benton a significant threat of physical violence against Melissa, these facts may give rise to a duty to warn. Nevertheless, the undisputed facts now in the record don’t support that allegation.
Indeed, the sole reasonably identifiable victim whom Loyd hauled an intent to physically harm was his mother. During Benton’s evaluations, Loyd specifically expressed a goal to kill his mother from retaliation for his dad’s death. According to those verbal expressions of risks, Benton ordered Lasting Hope staff to call Loyd’s mother to frighten her. And from the time Benton had arranged Loyd’s discharge, she understood that OPD was conscious of Loyd’s risks of physical violence against his mother, because humanist Hope employees had discussed the threats together with OPD officers, that cautioned Loyd’s mum.
Since the Special Administrators now concede, Loyd never expressed to Benton or anybody else in Lasting Hope that he intended to damage Melissa. He never identified Melissa by name or even by description in accordance with his expression homicidal ideation. And to the extent that the arrest warrant recognized Melissa as the casualty of Loyd’s previous misconduct, it did not amount to an actual communicating by Loyd, nor did it forecast that he would commit physical violence against Melissa in the future. As a result, no duty to warn Melissa was triggered under Munstermann.

Note, even with the statutory standard, the Court appears to validate that the duty to warn the mother and Dr. Benton obviously comprehended that duty in ordering the employees to reach out to the mother.
What’s also noteworthy is that the discussion of the duty to safeguard compared to the duty to warn. It was also rejected:

As examined above, the first duty implicated by Munstermann is that the psychiatrist’s duty to wake up. But by its plain language, the Munstermann rule applies evenly to the psychiatrist’s duty to safeguard.
In each clause of this Munstermann rule that limits psychiatrists’ duty to warn, there’s an equal limit in their duty to safeguard. …To the extent that any duty to protect and warn does arise, it”will be discharged from the psychiatrist if reasonable efforts are designed to communicate the danger to the victim or victims and also to your law enforcement agency”
…The Legislature explicitly enacted these limitations in response to Tarasoff as well as with them, fashioned a country policy”to preempt a grand ruling [from Nebraska] that a therapist could be held liable to the mere failure to forecast possible violence by his or her   patient.” As failure to warn claims are premised in part on psychiatrists’ responsibility to predict their patients’ future violence, so also are failure to protect asserts. Thus, we see the Munstermann rule as a true conclusion of state policy related to the duty of psychiatrists to warn–and shield –third parties out of their patients’ violent behavior.

There’s also an intriguing concurring opinion by Justice Jonathan Papik on the wider scope given the waiver by the Court. Papik noted that in Munsterman that the Court admitted that the statutes governing the duties of accredited mental health practitioners and psychologists did not explicitly apply to psychiatrists and, therefore, a psychiatrist’s duty was”still controlled by law.” Munstermann v. Alegent Health, 271 Neb. 834 , 845 , 716 N.W.2d 73 , 83 (2006). Papik questions that basis for then holding that while these statutes “`may not be literally applicable, [they are] obviously indicative of legislatively approved public coverage.'” Id. 
The circumstance is Rodriguez v. Lasting Hope Recovery Ctr. S-19-1116, 3/5/21 .

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