The Washington State Supreme Court has ruled that mental health professionals have a duty to protect and warn potential victims of violence by patients under their care even in cases where there were no potential victims named.
In Volk v. DeMeerleer, the state’s high court expanded the Tarasoff standard regarding a mental health professional’s duty to protect and warn a third party of possible violence, ruling that the duty extends to any possible victim, including those not specifically identified.
The decision creates a new category of “medical negligence,” making clinicians in Washington state potentially liable if it is determined that they should have known that someone would be a victim of violence. The ruling affects only mental health professionals licensed in Washington state.
The case involved a Spokane resident in therapy with a bipolar diagnosis who killed his girlfriend and her two sons before killing himself in 2010. He had not mentioned the murder threat during therapy and a lower court had thrown out a civil suit against the psychiatrist. An appeals court, however, held that “those with specials powers, skills and knowledge gained through the doctor-patient relationship must protect society at large from dangerous persons.”
Mental health professionals see the decision as an alarming development in Washington law. In their appellate briefs the Washington State Psychological Association argued that the decision would result in an impossible burden on mental health professionals, since scientific evidence demonstrates the difficulty, if not impossibility, of predicting violent behavior.
The association also argued that an expanded duty would force more disclosures of confidential communications, which would discourage patients from communicating openly with their providers, damaging the bond of trust necessary for effective treatment. The group argued that the case would require providers to practice more defensively by initiating unwarranted involuntary commitment proceedings, which would deprive patients of their liberty.
It is possible the mental health community will ask the Washington Legislature to enact a different duty to warn statute.