Bernstein v. Overseers of Harvard University

Charles Gilbert was a sophomore at Harvard University as was Ariana Bernstein. Charles and Ariana had "gone out" together during the Spring semester, but Ariana had broken off their relationship before she went home for the summer. Charles pleaded with her to try again when they returned to the campus in the Fall, but Ariana had made up her mind. She asked him not to call or write. Charles went into a deep depression. Shortly after he arrived on campus to begin the Fall semester he became a voluntary outpatient at Harvard University Health Services. On October 5th he informed his therapist, Dr. Lawrence Stone, that he was going to kill Ariana as soon as she moved into her off-campus apartment. Ariana was planning to move sometime during the month of October, was not speaking to Gilbert, and knew nothing of his intentions.

Dr. Stone, with the concurrence of Dr. Brown, who had initially examined Gilbert when he came in to the Heath Services, and of Dr. Yankovich, the assistant head of the department of psychiatry at the Heath Services, decided that Gilbert should be committed for observation in a mental hospital. Stone notified Officers Armstrong and Tyson of the University campus police that he was going to make a request for commitment. He then sent a letter to Police Chief William Kelley of the Cambridge Police requesting the assistance of the Cambridge Police Department in securing Gilbert's confinement. On the evening of October 6th four officers, two from the campus police and two from the Cambridge Police took Gilbert into custody.

After three days of confinement Gilbert's parents complained to the head of the psychiatry division at Harvard Health Services, Dr. Nathan Lane, Stone's superior. Lane looked into the matter and asked the psychiatrists at the hospital for an "evaluation." They determined that Gilbert was rational and Dr. Lane ordered his release on the condition that Gilbert promise to stay away from Ariana. Lane then asked the Cambridge Police to return Stone's letter, directed that all copies of notes that Stone had taken as therapist be destroyed, and "ordered no further action be taken to detain Charles Gilbert." No one warned Ariana of her peril.

On October 27th Charles Gilbert killed Ariana Bernstein. Ariana's parents sued Harvard University claiming that the University Health Services and its psychiatrists permitted Gilbert to be released from police custody "without notifying them, Ariana's parents, or their daughter that Ariana was in grave danger from Charles Gilbert." Is the University liable for its failure to warn Ariana or her parents of the impending danger? The psychiatrists, Stone and Lane, say that they owed no duty of reasonable care to Ariana since she was not their patient and that they are immune from suit. They argue further that to require them to have warned Ariana of the danger would have necessarily involved them in a breach of confidentiality between doctor and patient. They also argue that it is extremely difficult to predict violent behavior.

Is Harvard University liable in damages for failing to notify Ariana or her parents?

Prepared: February 4, 2003 - 5:02:29 PM
Edited and Updated, February 5, 2003

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