In the 1976 case of Tarasoff v. Regents, the California Supreme Court held that a
mental health professional has an obligation to take steps to protect identified
third parties whom the professional believes might be endangered by a client.
Though the decision has been criticized by a number of groups, it reflects the
idea that even medical privacy is not an absolute value. It may have to give way
in the face of clear threats to individuals or the public.
To give mental health professionals a protective zone in which to use their best
judgement, many states have enacted laws allowing medical professionals to take
steps, including notifying the threatened individual or law enforcement officials,
without becoming liable for breaching the privacy of the patient. Most also
protect the professional from liability if they decide not to act.
All states either mandate or permit disclosure in situations where a third party
might be at risk for harm, such as child and elder abuse. Once again, in this area,
privacy is subordinated to society's interest in preventing clear threats to individuals
or the public.