State issues ruling on duty to warn, WSHA gives guidance

June 7, 2017

Despite a strong effort by WSHA and other advocacy groups in the state legislature and motions for reconsideration, Volk v. DeMeerleer, a Supreme Court decision impacting delivery of mental health services, remains law in Washington State. Volk found that providers have a duty to warn or protect those who may be foreseeably harmed by a patient, even if no specific individual was identified. The ruling creates ambiguity for providers, as it alters the scope of duty to warn in several critical ways. WSHA, the Washington State Medical Association and Physicians Insurance have released guidelines for providers treating patients with violent tendencies or ideations, and we will continue to pursue legislative, regulatory and judicial options to address the results of the ruling.

The ruling alters duty to warn in at least three critical ways:

  1. It brings into question the groups of health care professionals who are subject to the duty to warn or protect;
  2. The duty now clearly applies in the voluntary inpatient and outpatient setting; and
  3. Most importantly, outside the context of an involuntary commitment processing, the scope of people to warn or protect now includes those who are “foreseeable” victims, not reasonably identifiable victims subject to an actual threat.

The guidelines for providers are intended to be general guidance and not legal advice. Currently, legislative efforts are underway to fund a study of the decision on the state’s mental health treatment system. Additional details on those options will be forthcoming. Click here to learn more about the case, the ruling and the guidelines for providers. (Taya Briley)


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