Apology Laws Found to Speed Up Malpractice Litigation

Physician expressions of sympathy and regret appear to encourage quicker settlements.
Physician expressions of sympathy and regret appear to encourage quicker settlements.

SAN DIEGO—States apology laws that provide legal protection for physicians who express sympathy and regret to patients for injurious medical errors appear to expedite resolution of malpractice cases, a researcher concluded in a presentation at the American Urological Association's 2016 annual meeting.

Using 2014 data from the National Practitioner Databank Public Use Data File, Patrick H. McKenna, MD, Chief of the Division of Pediatric Urology at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health in Madison, found that mean litigation length was 3.4 years in states with apology laws compared with 5.6 years in states without such laws. In the 38 states with apology laws, the mean litigation length was 4.4 years before apology laws were enacted and 4.1 years after the laws were enacted.

 

The aim of apology laws is to encourage apologies as a way to cut down on litigation. The laws specify that a physician's apology is inadmissible in court. Previous studies have found that patients sue out of anger that could have been softened by an apology and patients are less likely to sue and more willing to settle if they get an apology, Dr McKenna pointed out.

Thirty-two states have partial apology laws and 6 have full apology laws. Partial apology laws protect physicians from expressions of sympathy, commiseration, condolence, but do not cover statements of fault, Dr McKenna explained. Full apology laws protect against all types of apologies, including those containing statements of fault, mistakes, errors, and liability.

Dr McKenna's study found that the mean litigation length was shorter in states with full rather than partial apology laws (3.3 vs. 2.6 years).

Decreased litigation length benefits both the plaintiff (the patient) and the defendant (the practitioner), Dr. McKenna said. “The majority of medical malpractice cases reach verdicts that favor the defendant,” he told Renal & Urology News. “Patients, therefore, are subjected to unnecessary pain and suffering, have to pay additional hospital fees, pay court and lawyer fees, and, ultimately end up losing in court the majority of the time. Although most suits settle in the defense's favor, trial can be damaging to the practitioner's sense of worth and reputation. A shorter trial means lower court and lawyer fees for both parties, results in quicker payment to the patient, when applicable, and is less damaging to the practitioner's practice.”


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