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duty to warn vs duty to protect

When engaging with mental health services in Georgia, clients and professionals must understand the legal obligations imposed on therapists, psychiatrists, or mental health professionals (MHPs).

These obligations, particularly the differences in duty to warn vs. duty to protect, form an essential part of legal and ethical frameworks in mental health care.

If you or a loved one suffered harm due to potential malpractice, you might have a claim for damages.

Contact MG Law at (770) 988-5252 to schedule a consultation so our knowledgeable Georgia malpractice attorneys can review your case. 

Duty to Warn Vs. Duty to Protect

The duty to warn and duty to protect are legal concepts that outline the specific responsibilities of mental health professionals towards their patients and the public. The duty to warn arises when a mental health professional learns that a patient poses a particular threat of harm to another person. Under this duty, the professional must alert the potential victim or law enforcement to prevent harm. Conversely, the duty to protect involves safeguarding a patient from self-harm or preventing them from harming others.

This duty is particularly relevant in settings where the professional controls the patient, such as in psychiatric hospitals or other treatment facilities. Both duties aim to balance patient confidentiality with public safety, ensuring proactive management of foreseeable risks.

Duty to Warn Examples

In Georgia, the duty to warn is triggered when a mental health professional becomes aware of a patient’s explicit threats against a specific person.

For instance, if a patient in therapy divulges plans to harm a colleague, the therapist is required to take reasonable steps to warn the intended victim or notify law enforcement. This intervention helps prevent potential harm, adhering to legal obligations outlined in cases influenced by Tarasoff principles.

Duty to Protect Examples

Conversely, the duty to protect generally pertains to preventing harm the patient might inflict on themselves or others when under the direct care of a facility or professional.

A typical scenario might involve a patient in a psychiatric facility who exhibits clear signs of severe suicidal intentions.

Here, the facility’s staff are obligated to implement enhanced monitoring, restrict the patient’s access to potential means of self-harm, and possibly adjust treatment plans to address acute risks actively. Failure to take such protective measures could lead to liability for the institution if the patient were to harm themselves or others.

The Origin and Importance of the Tarasoff Law

The concept of a mental health professional’s duty to warn can be traced back to the landmark case in California—Tarasoff v. Regents of the University of California.

In this case, a university psychologist failed to inform a young woman or her family about a client’s specific threats against her life. Tragically, the client later murdered her. The court ruled that when a therapist determines or should have determined, that a patient poses a serious danger of violence to others, there is a duty to take reasonable care to protect the foreseeable victim.

This ruling emphasized that public safety outweighs the importance of patient confidentiality in certain scenarios. This principle, often called the “Tarasoff duty,” has been adopted in various forms, shaping the duty to warn nationwide. 

Legal Framework in Georgia

In Georgia, the duty to warn and protect is guided by statutory and common law interpretations. Under Georgia law, (O.C.G.A. § 43-39-16), communications between clients and mental health professionals are given the same level of confidentiality as those between attorneys and clients. They are not admissible in court. However, exceptions arise when a patient presents a clear danger.

Mental health professionals must protect or warn third parties when the patient is under their control in an inpatient setting and poses a likely risk of harm to others. However, as in Jacobs et al. v. Taylor et al., there is no duty to warn of generalized threats or if the potential victim is already aware of the danger.

Mental health professionals may file a certificate for involuntary treatment if they have examined a person within the past 48 hours who requires such treatment due to an imminent risk of harm to self or others. 

When Can Malpractice Claims Arise?

Malpractice claims might arise when there is a breach of these duties. If a mental health professional or institution neglects these duties and harm ensues, they could potentially face lawsuits for failing to prevent foreseeable harm.

Contact MG Law

If you believe you might have a malpractice claim against a mental health professional, consult with a skilled Georgia malpractice lawyer. At MG Law, we have years of experience handling complex Georgia malpractice cases, including those involving a duty to warn or a duty to protect.

Contact our office at (770) 988-5252 to schedule a free consultation and learn more about how we can help.

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Michael Geoffroy’s law practice focuses on auto collisions, premises liability, wrongful death, and catastrophic injury. He stands up for the cause of justice throughout Georgia and on behalf of his clients every day. He is a leader in both the courtroom and the community, having been recognized numerous times for his involvement in each.