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Therapists' Duty to Warn Endorsed By Pennsylvania High Court

By Lenny Giltman, Legal Intern

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has ruled that a mental health professional, under certain limited circumstances, owes a duty to warn a third party of threats of harm made by patients. Emerich v. Philadelphia Ctr. For Human Dev., 720 A.2d 1032 (Pa. Sup. Ct. 1998). The court decided that a mental health professional has a duty to warn third parties if there was an immediate, known and serious risk of potentially lethal harm where (1) there is a specific and immediate threat of serious bodily injury that has been communicated to the mental health professional and (2) the threat was made against a specific and readily identifiable victim.

Persuaded that mental health professionals are best-trained to detect, identify, evaluate and deal with threats and violent behavior, the court found that mental health professionals are in a uniquely good situation to predict violent behavior before it occurs, particularly when a specific threat has been made. The court also noted that the State Board of Psychology recognizes an exception to therapist-patient confidentiality in the case of a serious threat of harm to an identified or readily identifiable person. Pennsylvania is one of a number of states that have adopted the duty to warn standard first pronounced in the famous Tarasoff case in 1976.19

19 See Tarasoff v. Regents of Univ. of Cal., 551 P.2d 334 (Cal. Sup. Ct. 1976)