Apology Laws

On the surface, apology laws sounds humane. Disclosing medical errors to patients, along with apologies and offers of compensation, seems like the right thing to do. In return for admitting their mistakes, doctors would receive a waiver that their apology could not be used against them in court. But what seems like a win-win situation for patients and doctors puts injured victims at a considerable disadvantage.

The primary goal of apology laws is to reduce costs and risks to hospitals, health centers, and doctors. A recent policy paper in support of Massachusetts apology legislation confirmed as much. When asked what was most appealing about apology legislation, 74 percent of the policy’s supporters identified its ability to “reduce legal costs/risk.” In contrast, only 37 percent found the legislation’s ability to “serve[s] patients’ needs better” most appealing.

Even though supporters identify strongly with a reduction in costs and risks, they know that won’t win them many friends. The same policy paper emphasizes that supporters need to “emphasize that the motive … is to support patients and provide safer care, not save money.” It seems the public relations team behind tort reform are lending their strategies to apology laws.

And why wouldn’t they? Apology laws are just another form of tort reform. The authors of the Massachusetts policy paper said so themselves. They view the state’s proposed apology law as the first step to forming “a formal strategy to advance legislative changes” that include “additional tort reforms independent [of apology law] itself.”

Apology law is like any other tort reform – it tips the scales of justice against injured victims. Many patients and their families, still reeling from sometimes sudden and catastrophic injuries, are pressured into accepting unfair settlements by trained risk managers. Risk managers have one goal – minimize the cost to their employer – and they’re not afraid to manipulate vulnerable victims to achieve it. If doctors can have the benefit of a trained risk manager, why shouldn’t patients have the benefit of legal advice?

The fact is that many malpractice victims want answers more than they want compensation. They want to know why they were injured, what steps are being taken to make sure it never happens again, and that their doctor is genuinely sorry. That’s why apology laws are so manipulative and misleading. They speak to a shared human need, but they also exploit victims’ emotions.