Recently, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported a story involving the tragic death of a premature infant at Abington Hospital. The doctors met with the parents afterwards and admitted a mistake during a cardiac catheterization which caused the baby’s death. In the lawsuit that followed, the hospital’s lawyers moved to preclude the doctors’ statements made during the meeting with the parents, obviously key evidence for the parents’ lawyers in establishing liability. The case eventually settled leaving the issue unresolved, but doctors’ lobbyists are seeking legislation to make apologies and statements made during explanatory meetings with patients and next of kin after a mistake inadmissible in court. Doctors’ advocates argue it is necessary to make the practice of medicine more transparent.
As an attorney who has litigated and settled many cases, I believe that an early apology by the defendant and an effort to arrive at a fair resolution with the plaintiff instead of launching into litigation will achieve a quicker, less costly outcome both in dollars paid to the plaintiff and for defense. But something is taken away from the sincerity of an apology and admission of fault when the doctors know that their words will never see the light of a courtroom and the skill of their defense attorneys can still be used to bludgeon the plaintiff into accepting less rather than risk going to trial in an era when defense verdicts are prevalent and juries are giving doctors the benefit of the doubt. I see it every month in the reports of verdicts here in Bucks County.
In my view, an apology should be just that. A secret is not an apology. Like fresh air in a stale room, it is needed to heal.