The Duty To Warn Doctrine:  The Statute Is Only As Effective As The Circumstances Allow


The Duty To Warn Doctrine is the other side of the Duty To Protect Doctrine.

The former indicates that a patient has stated in a therapy session to the therapist the intention to commit a harmful act against someone, and the therapist has many remedies at their disposal to reduce the likelihood of harm coming toward the intended victim.  The latter indicates that the therapist has created a safe environment for therapy sessions, has a secure office for patient records, will provide the best therapy allowed, the therapist will behave with professionalism, and yes, there is that patient-doctor confidentiality.

In America where the statute allows the Duty To Warn Doctrine (in the most robust language possible and with clarity), a therapist can throw out the patient-doctor confidentiality because the therapist has a legal obligation (the first line of defense) to contact the intended victim’s family, the intended victim, and the police (in that correct order) to prevent a Tarasoff situation.  The therapist can place the patient on a rigorous schedule of outpatient visits for therapy.  Also, the therapist can have the patient hospitalized.  

The caveat:  A therapist is not liable when the patient is maintaining routine visits for therapy, taking prescribed medications (when the diagnosis necessitates prescriptions), the diagnosed condition appears to be lessening, there are no outward signs of disturbing behaviors (i.e., the therapist observing patient’s behaviors–mental & emotional), and yet goes out and harms someone anyway.  Scenarios outside of and after a therapist’s office session can explain why a patient will go out and physically harm someone (i.e., set them off), after having what appeared to be a successful health appointment with a therapist.

There is no predictability when a patient will go out and harm others in society when they have not made any indication of the sort  to the therapist in a therapy session even remotely (i.e., verbal, written correspondence, harassment, etc.)

A therapist can experience disappointment in this type of situation, but that disappointment is a long walk from the therapist being held negligent for what they are not responsible for.


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