The Counsellor's Corner
Here is a case that joins my two worlds as it involves both the practice of law and the practice of therapy. In a case decided earlier this week, the Court of Appeal decided that a police officer who was shot several times by a gunman could not recover damages from the gunman's psychiatrist. The "Firefighter's Rule" prevented the officer from being able to collect from the therapist. This rule got its name from situations wherein police officers and firefighters would be injured by that which they have been employed to combat; for a policeman it would entail being hurt on the job, and for a firefighter it would be, of course, fire.
This case took place in San Luis Obispo, and the Court of Appeal decided that the psychiatrist, Dr. Jerome Schulte, did not have an obligation to warn the authorities about his patient, Mr. Mora, and that he did not prescribe the wrong medication for his patient, and even if he did prescribe the wrong medication, he would still not be liable for the officer's injuries.
This clearly is the right ruling. If the Court had ruled the other way, then every mental health professional who has a patient capable of murder would be obligated to alert all police agencies within the area. The risk of getting shot is one assumed by each police officer. It is incredibly unfortunate when that happens however it is an inherent part of the job. Dr. Schulte had been seeing Mr. Mora, the shooter, for a period beginning in January of 1994. Dr. Schulte determined that Mr. Mora suffered from major depression and anxiety and he did have an anger problem.
In June of 1994, an Officer Tilley answered a "shots fired" call, arrived at the scene and was subsequently shot by Mora. Mora then shot both the officer and his police dog, forcing Officer Tilley into retirement. Officer Tilley won a $300,000 judgment against Mr. Mora, and then followed with this "negligent treatment" lawsuit against Dr. Schulte.
The Court of Appeal indicated that it was not Dr. Schulte who was at fault but that "Mora's acts are the specific, direct and immediate cause of the injuries suffered by Officer Tilley."
There is a Civil Code section which requires therapists to warn potential victims of violence if they believe that there is an imminent threat that the patient will do violence to another person. If that is the case then the therapist must warn the individual who is in jeopardy and must also contact a law enforcement agency. In this case, the Court found that Dr. Schulte did not believe that an attack was imminent and even if he did, the "Firefighter's Rule" would prevail.
From a public policy standpoint, I clearly support this decision. I imagine the therapist was sued as his insurance policy was likely the "deep pocket" in this case, and that is where people tend to bring their lawsuits. It is unlikely that the officer has collected much if any of the $300,000 judgment he won against Mr. Mora. I would suggest that the suit against Dr. Schulte was at best a stretch and had the Appellate Court permitted it, Pandora's Box would be opened once again. Fighting fire and fighting criminals are admirable and dangerous jobs. With that in mind, police officers cannot be permitted to prevail in situations such as this where they end up getting shot, just like a firefighter should be bringing suit when he is burned while helping to put out a fire.
Dr. Charles J. Unger is a criminal defense attorney in the Glendale law firm of Flanagan, Booth & Unger, and a therapist at the Foothill Centre for Personal and Family Growth. Mr. Unger writes a bimonthly column on legal and psychological issues.