THE COUNSELOR=S CORNER
Here is a situation that combines my careers as an attorney and as a psychotherapist.
Generally, when a client comes to see me in my capacity as a therapist, that which he or she says to me is protected. The client knows that what he says stays within the four walls of the counseling office. Throughout history, there have been only two exceptions to that rule. The first exception is if a client comes in and tells me that he is getting ready to murder another individual. In that case I am under an obligation to contact both the individual and the police department in the town in which the individual lives. Secondly, if the client is imminently suicidal, it is my obligation to look out for the welfare of the client and if that includes contacting a relative, I can do so at my discretion.
Well, earlier this month that all changed. The case was the matter of Uwing v. Goldstein and it expanded the obligation of the therapist indicating that if I were to learn that a client of mine was getting ready to kill someone even if I learned it from someone other than my client, I am now obligated to let the intended victim know. In this case, Keith Uwing was killed by an off duty police officer named Gino Colello in 2001. Mr. Colello was less than pleased that Mr. Uwing was dating his ex-girlfriend. With this information in mind, Mr. Colello=s father called his son=s therapist, Mr. Goldstein. He told Mr. Goldstein that his son was getting ready to kill Mr. Uwing. Mr. Goldstein did not warn Mr. Uwing of this imminent threat nor did he contact the local police department. The very next day Mr. Colello killed Mr. Uwing and then killed himself. The parents of Mr. Uwing then brought a lawsuit against Mr. Goldstein. As per the state of the law at that time, the judge dismissed the lawsuit indicating Mr. Goldstein would only be liable if Athe patient has communicated to the therapist a serious threat of physical violence against a reasonably identifiable victim or victims.@ Well, that WAS the law. The Second District Court of Appeal decided that there are other times when protecting an individual=s safety trumps the keeping of a confidence. The court held that this lawsuit could go forward.
The end result will be to change the way therapists such as myself handle these situations. In the future, if I were to receive the type of news that Mr. Goldstein received, from a third party and not directly from my client, I would have to strongly consider taking action.
The attorney for Mr. Goldstein indicates that they may well appeal this ruling and frankly, they should. Perhaps this is a good idea from a public policy standpoint, to require a therapist to take action if he learns, from a third party, of a murder his client is about to commit; however, that is not what the relevant statute states at this time. Civil Code ' 43.92 is very clear in the requirement that the communication be from the patient in order to trigger the therapist obligation to warn. All therapists are familiar with this obligation as it is part of our training. It is generally referred to as a ATarasoff warning@ due to the case called Tarasoff v. Regents of the University of California in 1976. In this case, a therapist was appropriately found to be liable when his patient murdered a woman after the patient had made serious and imminent threats pertaining to the woman at his counseling session. Needless to say that is very different from the present case and that has been the state of the law for the last 28 years.
I think that this ruling will be reversed on appeal and if the people of the State of California want the law to change then the legislature or the referendum system can accomplish that.