Mental health professionals face conflicting duties when their patients make threats of violence toward readily identifiable third parties: the duty to protect intended victims and the duty to maintain the confidentiality of patients. The seminal 1976 case, Tarasoff v. Regents of University of California, underscored the tension between these duties--unnecessary breaches of confidentiality may erode the therapeutic doctor/patient relationship and lead to liability for the doctor, but lack of action may cause devastating consequences for the victim. In the wake of the Tarasoff decision, most states enacted statutes codifying a mental health professional's duty to protect third parties from potentially dangerous patients. Analysis of case law interpreting the Illinois "duty to protect" statutes makes it clear that there is confusion regarding the specific elements of the duty, the events that trigger the duty, and the acceptable methods of satisfying the duty. This lack of clarity has led to extreme consequences varying from a complete lack of protection of classes of potential victims at one end of the spectrum, to unnecessary breaches of a patient's right to confidentiality at the other end. Improvements in both the wording and the application of the Illinois laws could help the state achieve its goal of balancing the conflicting duties of patient confidentiality and public protection.
College of Law
Northern Illinois University Law Review
Wood, Mary I.
"Protective Privilege Versus Public Peril: How Illinois Has Failed to Balance Patient Confidentiality with the Mental Health Professional's Duty to Protect the Public,"
Northern Illinois University Law Review: Vol. 29:
3, Article 4.
Mary I. Wood, Comment, Protective Privilege Versus Public Peril: How Illinois Has Failed to Balance Patient Confidentiality with the Mental Health Professional's Duty to Protect the Public, 29 N. Ill. U. L. Rev. 571 (2009).