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'I Am Sorry:' Pa. Considers 'Apology Law'

As lawyers, we are trained to never admit fault. But what happens when we give in to our humanity and apologize if we did something wrong?

As a parent of three girls, I often have to get involved when voices get raised and feelings get hurt. When I do get involved, I try to get an explanation of what went wrong, I try to sort out how feelings got hurt, and I try to get an apology from the offending girl – which is more often than not, each of them. It is one of the central roles of parenting. Every time I have to get involved, though, as a parent I am amazed at how difficult it is to get that apology. As a lawyer, though, maybe I shouldn’t be.

Fear of litigation has made a three-word apology – “I am sorry” – the worst possible thing you can say. My insurance company has directed me never to admit fault for an accident at the scene. Even if I was texting while eating a sandwich and watching a movie, don’t admit it was my fault. Let the insurance company have a chance to investigate and find something wrong with somebody else. Sure, the investigation and lawsuit that follows may cost them some money and will take two years and I may be found to be at fault by a judge or jury, but at least I did not admit it was my fault. 

But, what would happen if I did apologize at the scene? Would that change anything? 

Pennsylvania is currently considering an Apology Law – a law that would make an admission of guilt by a physician inadmissible in any subsequent litigation. If enacted, if your doctor made a mistake, he or she could do what should come natural for a human being, and apologize to you directly – something that they otherwise may not do for fear that it would be used against them in litigation. It seems crazy that we need a law to allow doctors to apologize, but that is where we are. With at least 35 states having these laws in place, studies have emerged showing that, amazingly, these laws actually help. Where the laws have been enacted, a physician’s apology has expedited the settlement process and decreased the value of settlements. See an October 2010 study from Cornell University authored by Benjamin Ho and Elaine Liu for more information.

An apology did not cure the physical harm, nor did it stop claims from being made – words can only do so much. But if we can learn anything from studies like this, it’s that even in litigation there is a human element, and sometimes saying three little words, “I am sorry,” can do a whole lot of good.

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Tim Killimaji May 25, 2012 at 03:55 PM
funny this was written by a law firm, when was the last time you heard an attorney say "I'm Sorry" on behalf of their clientele
P Feninez May 25, 2012 at 05:10 PM
In my own personal experience, I have seen a few individuals with a "law degree" who made errors. So true...above comment regarding "I'm Sorry."
Walt May 25, 2012 at 07:06 PM
How about along with the "I am sorry" we eliminate peer reviews being secret. Doctors conduct peer reviews and the documentation from these reviews cannot be subpoenaed or used in any court case. Essentially you have an entire profession policing themselves. How is that fair???????
John May 26, 2012 at 12:15 AM
Doctors going after doctors is no different than lawyers going after lawyers....what happened to allowable mistakes...being human? If there is a parmanent injury, absolutely sue. I know I speak in a moralistic world, but what if patient went into a room with the doctor, pulled out a chart and settled on a number. Inclusion would be to fix the problem, or have the physician assist the patient in getting another opinion. Unfortunately in today's market this can never happen. So saying one is sorry, whether sincere or not leads to a worse outcome because a 3rd party gets involved with their hand in the cookie jar. Take away the money, decrease the unecessary other concerns, and ALLOW the opportunity to say "I am sorry". Great article!
rhkramer June 01, 2012 at 03:23 PM
Hmm, is saying "I'm sorry" really considered an admission of guilt? (Maybe I learned double talk a long time ago?) I find it expeditious to say "I'm sorry" in a lot of situations, really meaning only that I'm sorry something happened, or I'm sorry we (or "you") are in these circumstances, but not intending to admit guilt. It tends to defuse situations. Must I now stop doing that for fear of accepting legal responsibility?

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