hen we were children, our parents taught us to apologize when we hurt someone. We understand the power of saying "I'm sorry."
Lawyers, on the other hand, typically tell clients to admit nothing and never apologize. They may believe they are saving their clients from liability, but anecdotal evidence and recent research suggest they are wrong.
An apology for wrongdoing can reduce the potential for litigation and liability and also help maintain or restore public trust. Refusing to admit wrongdoing may cause greater problems than the wrongdoing itself. Most agree that public officials would be better off if they simply admitted their transgressions, apologized, and sought forgiveness. In recognition of these principles, some law enforcement agencies have developed standard operating procedures for use of apology and expressions of regret as risk management tools.
A police chief in the Northeast visited bereaved parents to offer expressions of regret and condolences after their daughter was struck and killed by a police vehicle responding at excessively high speed to a call for service. After that visit, the parents decided a lawsuit was unnecessary. They felt there was no need to teach police a lesson because police "know they were wrong" and "a lawsuit won't bring our daughter back." Their desire for revenge against police abated.
A West Coast sheriff personally went door- to-door to apologize to residents for the hail of police gunfire that endangered residents during an effort by officers to stop a vehicle in their neighborhood. Many residents thank him for doing the right thing. Anger gave way to forgiveness and support for law enforcement.
The parents of a young boy on whom police used an electronic control weapon said, "All we want is an apology, but if we don't get it we're going to sue."
Data arising from empirical research also suggests that an apology can prevent loss. Much of that data relates to the reduction of medical malpractice liability.
Doctors around the country are discovering that leveling with their patients and apologizing are effective tools for lowering their malpractice claims. A recent Associated Press story reported that, since 2002, hospitals in the University of Michigan Health System have been encouraging doctors to apologize for mistakes.1 Their annual attorney fees have since dropped by two-thirds, from $3 million to $1 million, and malpractice lawsuits and notices of intent to sue have fallen by half, from 262 filed in 2001 to about 130 per year.
Jonathan Cohen, a law professor at the University of Florida's Levin School of Law, was an early researcher in the apology arena. He spoke in 2000 about the Veterans Affairs hospital in Lexington, Kentucky, which adopted the policy of apologizing in 1987 after some big malpractice cases. Among VA hospitals, it went from having one of the highest net legal costs to having the one of the lowest net legal costs.2
Health care providers who apologize to patients for things that go wrong in their care or the care of relatives are not just doing the right thing; they're doing the right thing for business, according to Kathryn Johnson, a registered nurse and the director of risk management at the University of North Carolina's health care system. In Essentials of Physician Practice Management, she identifies studies that show that litigation by patients was reduced when providers were forthcoming about mistakes they'd made and took responsibility for them, especially smaller mistakes.3 Patients whose caregivers communicate with them honestly and consistently are more likely to feel that their providers act in good faith, are more forgiving of their human errors, and are less likely to want to punish them with lawsuits. Hospitals across the country are adopting similar policies.
The evidence is not limited to medical malpractice. In 2002 the National Law Journal reported that Toro, the lawnmower manufacturer, had adopted a revolutionary policy.4 After an accident was reported to the company, a product integrity specialist, not a lawyer, made contact with the injured party, expressed the company's condolences, and initiated an investigation to discover the cause of the accident. An engineer went with the product integrity specialist to look at the equipment that caused the injury, and where appropriate the company took steps to improve the equipment to prevent future injuries. In two- thirds of the cases, the product integrity specialist resolved the matter without legal intervention. Almost all remaining cases resolved in mediation. According to the article, Toro reported that for 1992 to 2000, with more than 900 product liability claims referred to the program, legal costs per claim (attorney fees and litigation expenses) fell 78 percent, from an average of $47,252 to $10,420. The average resolution amount for the period dropped 70 percent, from $68,368 for settlements and verdicts to $20,248.
In 2000 California passed a law barring the introduction of apology-like expressions of sympathy ("I'm sorry that you were hurt") but not fault-admitting apologies ("I'm sorry that I hurt you") after accidents as evidence of fault. Other states are now debating proposed apology legislation, including bills that would exclude from evidence even fault- admitting apologies.5
According to Aaron Lazare, author of On Apology, apologizing can be motivated by strong internal feelings such as empathy for another or the distress of guilt and shame.6 In such cases, the person issuing the apology seeks to restore and maintain his own self-esteem.
Other motivating factors are external. We may, for instance, want to affect other people's perceptions, perhaps to induce forgiveness. People who don't apologize often say they don't do so because they fear the reactions of the people to whom they apologize, or they are embarrassed and ashamed of the image they would have of themselves as weak, incompetent, or in the wrong.
Lazare points out the healing benefit of the apology to both parties, the harmed and the one causing the harm. The apology fulfills several possible psychological needs for the offended party. Among them: restoration of self-respect and dignity, a sense of connection and shared values with the other person, a sense of safety in the relationship, assurance that the offense was not his fault, and sometimes the sense that the offender is suffering from the harm.
The results for the person issuing the apology can be more dramatic. The apology often restores the person's self-esteem and dignity, allows him the opportunity to make reparations, and reconnects him with the other person. If this is true for people, perhaps it is also true for organizations, including law enforcement agencies.
As Dr. Steve Kraman, former chief of staff of the VA hospital in Kentucky, points out: when you've done wrong, apologizing is just "the right thing to do."
A Final Note
This column deals primarily with situations where there has in fact been a wrongdoing. In such cases, admitting fault and offering a sincere apology may be beneficial for the wrongdoer, notwithstanding conventional legal wisdom to the contrary. Even where a person or organization is not at fault but nonetheless has caused injury or other harm, sincere expressions of regret--but not apology--may likewise be useful. The term apology is sometimes inaccurately used to describe all expressions of sympathy or regret. A greeting card that bears the message "I'm sorry for your loss," for instance, expresses condolences but not an apology.
An earlier version of this column appeared in the North Carolina State Bar Journal. It has been adapted by the authors for publication in the Police Chief with the journal's permission. ■