Emerich v. Philadelphia Center for Human Development Inc.

1999 Pa. LEXIS 64
Brief Filed: 10/96
Court: Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
Year of Decision: 1998

Read the full-text amicus brief (PDF, 355KB)

Issue

Whether a mental health professional has a duty to warn a third party of a patient's threats to harm the third party and the scope of any such duty

Index Topic

Duty to Warn/Protect

Facts

Gad Joseph — a patient with post-traumatic stress disorder, drug and alcohol problems, and explosive and schizo-affective personality disorders — received out-patient mental health treatment at the Philadelphia Center for Human Development. He informed a mental health counselor that he wanted to kill Theresa Hausler, his ex-girlfriend, who also received treatment from the facility. A therapy session was arranged in which the patient expressed his anger but left the session indicating that he was under control and would not harm her. The counselor received a call from Hausler who was en route to Joseph's house to finish packing her things, and warned her not to go over there. She did anyway and was shot and killed. The plaintiff, the administrator of the estate of the girlfriend, charged defendants with negligence and careless, reckless, willful and wanton conduct in failing to provide proper mental health care, failing to commit Joseph to a mental institution, failing to adequately to warn the girlfriend and others such as the police, and failing to adequately train and supervise staff. The trial court granted judgment on the pleadings, stating that even if the allegations in the complaint were true, recovery would not be possible against any of the defendants. The court based its holding on Pennsylvania's failure to adopt Tarasoff v. Regents of the University of California, 17 Cal. 3d 425, 551 P.2d 334 (1976), but stated that the counselor had met even a Tarasoff duty to warn by informing Hausler of the danger and instructing her as to how to avoid that danger. The counselor had fully discharged any obligation he owed her as a result of Joseph's threats of violence. The Superior Court affirmed the lower court, agreeing that the case posed no genuine issue of fact, and observed that Pennsylvania's mental health care providers generally have no duty to warn third parties of a patient's threat of violence toward that third party. It agreed with the trial court that, even if such a duty existed, the counselor's warning the deceased not to go to Joseph's home had discharged it. The Supreme Court agreed to hear an appeal on the issue of "whether a mental health professional has a duty to warn a third party of a patient's threats to harm the third party and the scope of any such duty and whether a judgment on the pleadings was proper."

APA's Position

APA entered the case with the Pennsylvania Psychological Association as an amici, strongly opposing the creation of a Tarasoff duty to warn in the state of Pennsylvania. APA's brief argued that there is no sound basis for imposing a unique duty to warn on mental health workers because: (1) no other person (e.g., criminal defense attorneys) in the same or similar position is charged with such a legal duty or subject to litigation and potential liability; (2) mental health workers are not in a better position to protect third parties than others since they have neither special ability to predict who will commit violent acts nor any special means to control dangerous people; (3) imposing a duty to warn on therapists cannot be expected to increase public safety since a duty to warn has not been shown in the scientific literature to reduce violence and, instead, imposing such a duty to warn disserves broader public safety goals; and (4) alternatively, if the court were to find a duty to warn, such duty should be limited in a manner least destructive to public safety and the continuing availability of effective psychotherapy by being imposed only when there is a specific threat to an identified or reasonably identifiable victim and an imminent threat of serious bodily injury or death. The brief urged the court to adopt the "professional judgment rule" as the applicable standard of care.

Results

The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania followed Tarasoff to hold that "pursuant to the special relationship between a mental health professional and his [sic] patient, the mental health professional has a duty to warn a third party of potential harm by his [sic] patient." The court deliberately left open the issue of whether a broader duty to protect third parties should be recognized in Pennsylvania. In finding a duty to warn, the court analogized from prior cases recognizing a mental health professional's liability for negligent discharge of a patient to those who could "foreseeably be affected by a wrongful discharge of the patient" and a physician's legal duty to protect third persons in the context of contagious diseases. The court found that public policy favoring societal interest in the protection of Pennsylvania citizens made the imposition of a duty to warn reasonable despite countervailing policies regarding the treatment of mental patients. Following the alternative proposed by the APA amicus brief, the court adopted the professional judgment rule as the standard of care stating that "a mental health professional who determines, or under the standards of the mental health profession should have determined, that his [sic] patient presents a serious danger of violence to another, bears a duty to exercise reasonable care to protect by warning the intended victim against such danger."