Duty To Warn: Disclosure Versus Privacy In Missouri

Medical professionals must learn very private details of their patients’ lives to properly treat them. Likewise, patients must trust their physicians with intimate and private information so they get the care they deserve. Both patient and care giver understand and rely upon the confidentiality which is essential to proper medical care. In the ordinary case, medical professionals will jealously guard their duty. The duty of maintaining confidentiality or privilege, depending upon the nature of the care provided, on its face, appears to be a bright-line rule. Can the circle of trust be broken without committing an ethical violation in Missouri? The answer depends upon the facts of the individual case.  Therefore, if you find yourself in that position, it is crucial that you contact Missouri professional licensing attorney Danielle Sanger for a thorough analysis of the situation.

In Missouri, a “mental health coordinator” has a duty imposed by statute to take action if they receive information that a person is about to commit a “serious harm.” The threat must arise from a “mental disorder.” In that instance, the statute requires the mental health coordinator to conduct an investigation, analyze the data acquired during the investigation, then evaluate the credibility of the sources of the information. At that point, the coordinator must determine whether a threat to do serious bodily harm exists. If there is reasonable cause to believe the patient will hurt himself or someone else, then the mental health professional must contact the local probate court for an order to apprehend the individual. If the professional believes that the threat is imminent, the coordinator may seek police assistance in apprehending the person and commit them involuntarily. Lastly, the statute imposes a duty upon the coordinator to notify the patient’s family and friends about available services if an involuntary commitment is not indicated.

The above procedure, if followed, can thwart a threat to a specific person or group of people. The statute is silent as to whether the target of the threat must be notified. Notwithstanding, Missouri may impose a “common law” duty to warn the potential target of the threat. Failure to discharge that duty may have adverse professional consequences. The existence of a duty to warn rests on several factors. Those factors include the public policy of Missouri in preventing the harm alleged, the foreseeability of the potential harm and the ability to protect against it, the moral blame associated with the harm, and the societal costs to the “actor and the community.” The right to sue for failure to warn extends only to identifiable potential victims and not the community at large. The cost to the provider is minimal. Discharging the duty to warn may be as simple as a telephone call to the police or other appropriate authority, and the object of the threat.

The duty to warn may attach to more than mental health professionals. Generally speaking, Missouri does not impose a duty to warn upon the average person to prevent a third party from becoming a victim of a crime. In that instance, liability does not attach to the person who could have prevented the harm. Notwithstanding, the nature of the relationship between care giver and patient can impose the duty to warn a third party about impending harm. The harm, however, must not be remote. It must be foreseeable. Foreseeable means whether the reasonable person knew or should have known about the potential danger and taken some measure to stop it.

Seek Immediate Legal Assistance If You Find Yourself In This Situation

No medical professional wants to find themselves in this situation. Missouri Professional Licensing Attorney Danielle Sanger recommends that you follow the appropriate steps to discharge your duty and document as much information as you can. Attorney Sanger will rely on that information to vigorously defend you if adverse legal action is taken against you because of your decision. Call Missouri professional licensing attorney Danielle Sanger today for a free, no-obligation consultation at 785-979-4353.