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Judge Upholds $1M Award for Psychiatrist’s Warning of Possible Shooting; Appeal Begins

Although mental health professionals and others have a “duty to warn” when they suspect a patient may be at risk of causing harm, a jury decided that a psychiatrist erred when she informed a veteran’s boss and the local police that he had thought about shooting the man in the head, a federal judge has ruled. But acknowledging that some of his rulings in the case followed “scant precedent,” North District of California Judge William Orrick is allowing an appeal of the verdict, which included a $1 million judgement against the psychiatrist, despite her attorneys missing a crucial filing deadline.

The veteran, Ronald Turner of Eureka, California, won a $2.75 million award in March, after his attorney convinced a jury that his thought of killing his boss did not pose a serious enough threat to warrant violating his privacy. After the psychiatrist, Tracie Rivera, M.D., informed Turner’s boss, he lost his job, has been shunned by former friends and coworkers, and lost his faith in the medical system. Orrick reduced the total award to $1 million, citing caps set on noneconomic damages by California malpractice law.

In his July 19 ruling, Orrick noted Rivera could herself suffer more than monetarily should she lose on appeal. “An adverse final judgment may well affect her future employment and career,” he wrote.

The case is significant to providers and privacy officials nationwide as it pits the duty to provide a so-called “Tasaroff” warning to protect patients and the public against the privacy rights of patients. Depending on the final outcome, the case may either have a chilling effect on others’ warnings or serve to encourage them. Some in the mental health field have previously warned that patients won’t share confidences if they believe their privacy, particularly crucial in mental health settings, could be threatened.

Tanya Tasaroff, also a California resident, was murdered in 1969 by her former boyfriend. In a case that went to the California Supreme Court (twice), the University of California was found to have a duty to warn her of the threat against her life that the former boyfriend had admitted to his psychologist (who worked at UC hospital). The rulings sparked laws nationwide that are inconsistent in how they define what type of threat should be communicated and to whom, among other differences. HIPAA also contains provisions that apply in such cases (“HIPAA and ‘Duty to Warn,’” RPP 19, no. 8).

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