Supreme Court of California

34 Cal. 3d 695

Nature of Case

Whether the duty to warn/protect extends to a foreseeable and identifiable bystander who has a close relationship to the potential victim.

Facts of Case

LaNita Wilson and Stephen Wilson (no relation) were involved in therapy. Stephen informed the psychologists of his intent to harm LaNita. On April 9, 1979, Stephen used a shotgun and shot and wounded LaNita. She threw herself over her son, Darryl, who was seated next to her, and while she was wounded, he was not physically injured. LaNita and Darryl filed suit against two psychologists in November 1980, for professional negligence, due to their failure to warn her of the threats made against her and the danger posed to her by Stephen. The complaint also alleged that the duty of care owed to LaNita extended to her minor child, Darryl, who allegedly suffered emotional injuries as a result of witnessing the attack. Darryl argued that it was foreseeable that if Stephen’s threats were carried out, that he posed a risk to bystanders, particularly those in a close relationship to LaNita, and when they failed to take action to protect LaNita, the duty which extended to him was breached. He did not allege that the psychologists had the specific duty to warn or protect him, but rather when they failed to protect LaNita, they breached the duty which extended to him.

 

The two psychologists filed a demurrer to the two counts, but it was overruled by the trial court. The two psychologists then petitioned the California Supreme Court for a writ of mandate, in order to compel the trial court to vacate their decision to overrule their demurrer. They based their writ of mandate on two arguments. First, they argued LaNita’s claim was barred by a one-year statute of limitations for personal injury actions, and secondly, that Darryl’s claim failed to state a cause of action. The psychologists argued that recognizing dangerousness is an aspect of their professional duties, and negligent failure to diagnose or predict this behavior would be considered professional negligence; however, they further argued that injury which results from failure to warn a third party is ordinary negligence.

Issues

Is failure to warn a third party considered professional negligence? Is there an extension of the duty to warn/protect to a foreseeable bystander who has a close relationship with a potential victim?

 

Holding

The court denied the petition for a writ of mandate. The court determined that a therapists’ failure to warn a potential victim of a threat made by a patient constitutes professional negligence. The court also held that the duty “owed to the woman extended to her minor child, since the risk of harm to him was foreseeable as a matter of law and since he was identifiable as a person who might be injured if the patient attacked the woman.”

Rationale

The Court concluded “the duty to diagnose or recognize a danger posed by a patient and the duty to take appropriate steps to protect a potential victim are not separate or severable, but together constitute the duty giving rise to a cause of action based on failure to warn.”

Dissent

Justice Mosk argued that the majority should not have mused about whether psychologists should have known of the threatened violence, because in this case they had actual knowledge of threats. It was concluded that knowing of these threats and failing to warn is not malpractice, but negligence, and agreed with the petitioners that the statute of limitations should have been one year, and the mandate should have been granted. The justice further contended “the majority opinion unfortunately perpetuates the myth that psychiatrists and psychologists inherently possess powers of clairvoyance to predict violence.”

Amicus Brief

Following the Supreme Court of California’s decision, the petitioners requested rehearing of the case, and the amicus brief filed by the APA urged the court to rehear the case in light of social science evidence. Additionally, the APA contended that “the Court’s failure to clarify the limits of its opinion leaves open the possibility that therapists will be held liable to an infinite class of persons who are post hoc denominated as foreseeable bystanders and are not themselves victims of a patient’s violence, and that those therapists will be required to take unspecified steps to satisfy their duty of due care to those persons.”