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A Better Partnership
December 22, 2014

COA determines that a mental health professional has a duty to prevent false accusations of childhood sexual abuse by parents

In Roberts v. Salmi, No. 316068, the Michigan Court of Appeals determined that a mental health professional owes a duty to third party non-patients to ensure that its professional techniques do not lead to false sexual accusations.  According to the Court of Appeals, Michigan common law recognizes a duty of care to third parties who might foreseeably be harmed by the use of techniques that lead a patient to have false memories of sexual abuse.
 
Lale and Joan Roberts were "K's" parents, a minor. K underwent Recovered Memory Therapy by Salmi, which led to K accusing Lale of child molestation. Salmi reported Lale to the authorities and Lale was forced to undergo investigations by the Michigan State Police, and the Department of Human Services; neither agency found any credible evidence of abuse.
 
Lale and Joan filed suit against Salmi and argued that Salmi owed a duty of care to Lale and Joan to prevent false information of sexual abuse from being disseminated to the community. As the Court of Appeals explained, the issue in the case involved "whether the parents of a patient being treated by a mental health professional are sufficiently connected to the patient's treatment to warrant the imposition of a limited duty of care on the mental health professional to avoid treating the patient in a way that might harm the parents."
 
The Court of Appeals answered the question in the affirmative. The Court determined that although the treating therapist does not have a direct professional-patient relationship with the parents, there remains a duty of care owed to them. "We conclude that the relationship between a mental health professional and his or her patient's parents is sufficiently close and the foreseeability of the harm is sufficiently strong to weigh in favor of a limited duty of care."  The Court declared that the mental health professional must "not only consider the patients welfare, but also [must consider] the possibility that his or her decision to treat the patient may result in a false memory that directly harms the patient's parents."
 
The Court, however, concerned with the impact of the decision limited its holding only to treatment techniques that actually cause the patient to have a false memory of childhood sexual abuse. The Court stated that the plaintiff in a case such as this must show by a preponderance of the evidence that the patient's memories of childhood sexual abuse were actually false; and in dicta the court stated that "the duty could be further limited so that the mental health professional would not be liable if a reasonable mental health professional would have employed the technique under the circumstances notwithstanding the apparent risk.""
 
Thus, the Court determined that Salmi did owe a duty of care to Lale and Joan, and remanded the case to the trial court to consider the case consistent with this rule. 

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