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April 2007 - Law, Ethics, Psychiatry and the Human Genome

After their daughter was murdered in October 1969, the parents of Tatiana Tarasoff were not content to mourn her death and see her killer prosecuted. Two months before the slaying, the killer had revealed his lethal plans to his psychologist. Tatiana’s parents wanted to sue the therapist and his employer for not warning them or taking other measures that might have averted the tragedy.

In Tarasoff v. Regents of the University of California (1976), the California Supreme Court allowed the parent’s suit to go forward and, in the process, created what would arguably become the most influential decision in all mental disability law. On March 17, the Glenn M. Weaver Institute of Law and Psychiatry marked the decision’s importance with a day-long symposium entitled “The Future of the ‘Duty to Protect’: Scientific and Legal Perspectives on Tarasoff's Thirtieth Anniversary.” Jointly sponsored by the Weaver Institute and the University’s College of Medicine, the event brought together over 120 mental health professionals, attorneys, and students to hear presentations by nationally recognized experts, who examined the perplexing legal and scientific problems that Tarasoff has created.

Professor Michael L. Perlin, director of the International Mental Disability Law Reform Project and the Online Mental Disability Law Program at New York Law School, led off the symposium with “‘You Got No Secrets to Conceal’: Considering the Application of the Tarasoff Doctrine Abroad.” The presentation examined potential sources of protective duty in international human rights law. Professor John Monahan, University of Virginia Law School, gave a presentation entitled, “Tarasoff and the Science of Violence Risk Assessment,” explaining how iterative classification methods can evaluate dangerousness.

Dr. Douglas Mossman, administrative director of the Weaver Institute, presented “Critique of Pure Risk Assessment or Kant Meets Tarasoff.” This presentation described mathematical problems with risk assessment tools and offered an alternative ethical perspective on psychotherapists’ protective obligations. Christopher Slobogin, Professor of Law and Affiliate Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Florida, described how insights from criminal law can illuminate therapists’ duties in a presentation entitled “Reconstructing Tarasoff as a Duty to Commit.”

Dr. Robert I. Simon’s presentation, “The Myth of ‘Imminent’ Violence in Psychiatry and the Law,” focused on the vagueness of clinical factors that indicate whether violence is imminent. Dr. Simon, president of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, directs the Program in Psychiatry and Law at Georgetown University School of Medicine. Lastly, Professors Sarah M. Buel, University of Texas School of Law, and Margaret Drew, UC’s College of Law, presented “Ethical Responsibility and Tort Liability for Practicing Lawyers under Tarasoff: A Domestic Violence Standard.” They argued that attorneys—especially those who handle domestic relations issues—should protect potential victims of clients, just as psychotherapists do. Professor Buel, a domestic violence survivor, co-directs the university’s Domestic Violence Clinic; Professor Drew directs the Domestic Relations/Domestic Violence Clinic at UC Law and chairs the American Bar Association’s Commission on Domestic Violence.