In its May 27, 2020 opinion, the District Court of Appeal of the State of Florida Fourth District (“Florida Appellate Court”) stated, “Florida law does not recognize a duty of mental health providers to warn third parties that a patient may be dangerous. This is because of “the inherent unpredictability associated with mental illnesses and the ‘near impossibility of accurately or reliably predicting dangerousness.’””
“To impose a duty [on a psychiatrist] to warn or protect third parties would require the psychiatrist to foresee a harm which may or may not be foreseeable, depending on the clarity of his crystal ball. Because of the inherent difficulties psychiatrists face in predicting a patient’s dangerousness, psychiatrists cannot be charged with accurately making those predictions and with sharing those predictions with others … imposing such a duty is “neither reasonable nor workable and is potentially fatal to effective patient therapist relationships.””
The Underlying Facts
On February 14, 2018, Nikolas Cruz (“Cruz”) shot and killed seventeen people and wounded seventeen others at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida. The parents of one of the shooting victims sued Henderson Behavioral Health, Inc. (“Henderson”), which is a mental health facility that provided outpatient mental health services to Cruz at various times between 2009 and December 2016. Henderson provided therapy sessions to Cruz from October 2016 until December 2016, at which point Cruz, who was then eighteen, stated he was no longer interested in continuing with the therapy sessions. The case was closed on December 27, 2016, and Henderson had no further involvement with Cruz afterwards.
In February 2017, Cruz was expelled from school after fighting and was told not to return. That same month, Cruz purchased the AR-15 rifle that he would use in the school shooting.
In January 2018, the FBI received a report from a person close to Cruz who was worried about him “getting into a school and just shooting the place up.” The caller reported concerns about Cruz’s “gun ownership, desire to kill people, erratic behavior, and disturbing social media posts, as well as the potential of him conducting a school shooting.” On February 14, 2018—more than a year after discontinuing services with Henderson—Cruz went to Douglas High School with an AR-15 rifle and killed seventeen students and teachers and wounded seventeen others.
The parents’ mental health malpractice lawsuit alleged that Henderson was negligent for failing to prevent Cruz from being mainstreamed into the public school system and failing to warn of Cruz’s dangerous propensities. The trial court dismissed the complaint as to Henderson, and the parents appealed.
Florida Appellate Court Opinion
The Florida Appellate Court stated: “Given the unpredictable nature of a mental health patient’s future behavior, mental health providers such as Henderson are not legally tasked with identifying, advising, or warning third parties when the patient has made only a general threat to harm others, as the concurring opinion demonstrates in its discussion of the legislative response to this tragedy.”
The Florida Appellate Court further stated: “even if Henderson played a “key role” in the decision to mainstream Cruz by consulting with the School Board and making a recommendation, that conduct did not give rise to a duty to protect the administration, teachers, and students at the high school from harm, especially when the decision to mainstream Cruz was ultimately up to the School Board, not Henderson. The undertaker’s doctrine does not apply in this case to impose liability on Henderson … although there may be a special relationship between Henderson and Cruz and separately between the high school and its students, there is no special relationship between a student patient’s mental health provider and other students who attend school with the patient.”
“In this case, a holding that Henderson owed a legal duty to protect or warn students that attended the same school as one of its patients would not only undermine effective patient-therapist relationships, but it also would discourage mental health professionals from providing mental health services to students. It is difficult to predict any human being’s future conduct. Unlike scientific disciplines firmly grounded in mathematics, psychology is not a precise science, so courts should be cautious about expanding beyond the therapist-patient relationship.”
Source Pollack v. Cruz, No. 4D19-1512.
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