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Mental Health Professionals in Pennsylvania Have Limited Duty to Warn Third Parties of Dangers
Description Pennsylvania high court adopted the rule that mental health professionals have a duty to warn third parities of specific dangers posed by patients under their care. The court found that in this case, where a counselor warned a woman to stay away from her former boyfriend, the duty to warn had been satisfied.
Topic Torts
Key Words Negligence; Duty to Warn; Mental Health Professionals
C A S E   S U M M A R Y
Facts Hausler was murdered by her former boyfriend, Joseph, who was under mental health treatment. He had a history of violence. The day of the murder, Joseph told his counselor that he was going to kill Hausler. After counseling, when he refused to commit himself to the hospital, he said he would not kill her. The counselor then warned Hausler not to go near Joseph, but she did and was killed. Her family sued the mental health facility for negligence for failure to warn of the danger posed by Joseph. Lower courts held for the facility, holding that there was no duty to warn in Pennsylvania but, if there was, the counselor had fulfilled that duty with the warning he gave Hausler. Her family appealed.
Decision Affirmed. Pennsylvania joins other states in adopting the rule that in some circumstances, mental health professionals have a duty to warn third parties of a patient's threat to harm them. "Having found ... that a physician owes a duty to a non-patient in their party, at least in the context of a contagious disease, we believe that there is no reason why an analogous duty to warn should not be recognized when the disease of the patient is a mental illness that may pose a potentially greater and more immediate risk of severe harm or death to others." This does not mean that mental health professionals can be expected to predict future behavior; the duty arises when there is a specific threat of serious injury against a specific victim. The warning given in this case was adequate and reasonable.
Citation Emerich v. Philadelphia Center for Human Development, Inc., - A.2d - (1998 WL 812593, Sup. Ct., Pa.)
720 A.2d 1032 (Sup. Ct., Pa., 1998)

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