In the past, when something went wrong during medical treatment or surgery, many doctors would not express condolences or apologies to patients or their families. Doctors were concerned that apologizing could later be used against them in court as evidence of wrongdoing in a medical malpractice case. In response, many states enacted so-called “I'm sorry” laws, which lawmakers believed could reduce litigation. However, a new study finds that these apology laws do not have any impact on the number of malpractice cases.
Over half of all states have some version of an apology law on the books. This generally allows a doctor or medical professional to express sympathy, an apology, condolences, or other sympathetic gestures, and those expressions could not be used as evidence of guilt in court.
According to law professor Jennifer Robbennolt of the University of Illinois, apologies can help reduce litigation and promote settlement. “Studies suggest apologies can actually play a positive role in settling legal cases,” said Robbennolt. “Receiving an apology can reduce financial aspirations and make it possible for parties to enter into discussions about settlement.”
A study published in The Journal of American Osteopathic Association in 2012 found these laws “have been shown to reduce the financial consequences of a medical malpractice lawsuit.” Medical ethics codes also favor honesty and openness in dealing with patients. The Joint Commission requires accredited institutions to have a process to keep patients and their families informed of unexpected medical outcomes.
However, a study from Vanderbilt university found that “I'm sorry” laws have actually increased the number of malpractice lawsuits against non-surgeons. Benjamin McMichael, one of the authors of the study, said an apology may encourage lawsuits because it signals the patient or their family that something went wrong.
“By apologizing, the doctor tells the patient he screwed up when the patient previously did not know that,” said McMichael. “They can't use the apology itself, but knowing something went wrong, they can look for other evidence that they can use.”
The study did not take into account whether or not apologies were made in the more than 3,500 cases they reviewed. Instead, they determined that based on the number of malpractice claims in the 32 states with such laws on the books, the number of claims was not reduced after enactment of the laws.
Travis Akin, with Illinois Lawsuit Abuse Watch, said the laws “allow people to be decent human beings and that should not be an admission of guilt.” “I think that it really should not matter if it works or not because doctors are human beings, and doctors care deeply, and if something goes awry they are going to feel responsible.”
If you or a family member has been injured due to a medical error, it is important to speak to an experienced Illinois medical malpractice attorney so you can get compensated for your injuries. Your attorney can make sure the doctor and hospital are held accountable and get you the answers you are looking for. At Benassi & Benassi, we are committed to getting our clients and their families the justice they deserve.