The Michigan Legislature has approved a bill that would allow doctors, nurses, and hospitals to express sympathy – but not admit fault – to injured patients and their families without the fear of their statements being used against them in a lawsuit.

The bill, known unofficially as the “I’m sorry” law, would make official a policy that several Michigan hospitals, including the University of Michigan Health System (UMHS), have already adopted.

In 2001, UMHS adopted a policy of apologizing for medical errors and offering compensation when the error caused an injury. Last year, the Annals of Internal Medicine published the results of a study examining the effect of the apology policy on malpractice lawsuits (2010;153-1-28).

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The study found that the monthly rate for new malpractice claims fell from about 7.0 per 100,000 patient encounters to about 4.5 per 100,000 encounters. The total number of lawsuits the health system faced fell from about 38.7 per year to 17 after the program was instituted. Issues were often settled. The annual spending on legal defense by UMHS dropped by 61% after institution of the policy, and the average cost per lawsuit decreased by almost half. There was a savings in time as well, with the median time to resolve a claim dropping from around 16 months to just under a year.

Bolstered by the positive outcomes at UMHS and the fact that health care professionals often want to offer sympathy to patients but are afraid of legal repercussions, the bill was introduced in the Michigan Senate by Sen. James Marleau (R-Lake Orion).

The bill specifies that “a statement, writing, or action that expresses sympathy, compassion, commiseration, or a general sense of benevolence relating to the pain, suffering, or death of an individual and that is made to that individual or to the individual’s family is inadmissible as evidence of an admission of liability in an action for medical malpractice.” 

The bill specifies exactly who is considered “family” of the injured party. However, the bill very clearly states that the protection does not extend to an admission of negligence, fault, or culpable conduct, even if that admission is made as part of the apology. So careful wording of an apology, without an admission of fault, would be necessary. 

If the bill is signed into law, it would make Michigan the 36th state to have such a provision.