Mental Healthcare Provider Owed No Duty to a Mother To Protect Her from Son Undergoing Outpatient Mental Health Treatment Who Later Killed Mother

A woman’s son had psychological problems for which he had been institutionalized several times. Her son received outpatient psychiatric treatment from the defendant mental healthcare provider. After an altercation in which the son threatened the mother at her home, the police were called. The police agreed to visit the son at home the next morning. The next day a psychiatrist with the mental healthcare provider spoke with the son and concluded that he was stable, did not need further evaluation, and did not need to be admitted to a hospital. Two days after the altercation, the son murdered his mother.


The woman’s other son, on behalf of her estate, sued the mental healthcare provider and the county police for personal injuries and wrongful death.  The county and the mental healthcare provider filed motions for summary judgment, which the trial court denied. 


The appellate court reversed the trial court’s denials of summary judgment. A defendant has a duty to control the conduct of a third party only when there is a special relationship: a relationship between the defendant and the third person whose actions expose the plaintiff to harm such as would require the defendant to attempt to control the third person's conduct; or a relationship between the defendant and plaintiff requiring the defendant to protect the plaintiff from the conduct of others. 


The court reasoned that the county had sufficiently demonstrated that no special relationship existed between the county and the mother because she did not justifiably rely on assurances by the police that they would protect her from her son. Only the plaintiff, not the mother, talked to the police who agreed to visit the home the next morning. Regarding the mental healthcare provider, the court reasoned that the defendant, the outpatient psychiatric treatment provider, had sufficiently demonstrated that no special relationship existed between the defendant and the son because the defendant did not exercise sufficient control over the son to give rise to a duty to protect others from his conduct, and the defendant had no special relationship to the mother which would impose such a duty.


See: Citera v. County of Suffolk, 95 A.D.3d 1255, 945 N.Y.S.2d 375 (N.Y.A.D. 2 Dept. May 30, 2012).