The Michigan Legislature has approved a bill that would allow doctors, nurses and hospitals to express sympathy to injured patients and their families without the fear that these statements will be used to prove fault 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, have already adopted.

In 2001, the University of Michigan Health System adopted a policy of apologizing for medical errors and offering compensation when the error caused an injury. In 2010, the Annals of Internal Medicine published the results of a study examining the effect of the apology policy on malpractice lawsuits.

The researchers found that the monthly rate for new malpractice claims fell from about 7 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 about 17 after the program was instituted, and most issues were settled outside of court.

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The University of Michigan Health System was able cut annual spending on legal defense by 61%, and the average cost per lawsuit decreased by almost half. The median time to resolve a claim also dropped from around 16 months to just under one year.

Bolstered by the positive outcomes Sen. James Marleau (R-Lake Orion), introduced a bill to the Michigan Senate that 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.” 

It also 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. 

The bill is likely to be signed into law within the next few weeks, making Michigan the 36th state to have such a provision.