Bill would permit docs to say “sorry”


Actor James Woods and Kent Hospital President Sandra Coletta both testified Wednesday in favor of a bill that would allow doctors to apologize to patients and their families without facing legal backlash. Rep. Joseph McNamara, who introduced the bill, accompanied both Woods and Coletta, who gave testimony before the House Committee on Judiciary last week.

The bill, called the “benevolent gestures” bill, would prohibit signs, gestures or words of compassion that medical personnel may offer to a patient or their friends and family from being used against them in medical malpractice or negligence suits.

Woods, whose brother, Michael, died in 2006 following cardiac arrest at Kent Hospital, dropped a negligence lawsuit against the hospital after Coletta stepped forward to apologize to him.

“As I was taught by my mother, the act of a simple apology, saying I’m sorry, can make a tremendous difference in the lives of those who have been hurt,” said Coletta in a statement. “When things don’t go as planned in a clinical setting, it is often too easy to forget the human factors. It is our responsibility as leaders in the medical community to do whatever we can to help minimize that pain.”

When the lawsuit against Kent Hospital was underway, Coletta said she felt the need to reach out to Woods and speak with him personally.

“I wanted to speak with him to figure out what we could do, if anything, to resolve the case,” she said in an interview yesterday. “To me, the apology was a minor step. It was the fact that we were able to do something that has a demonstrable impact.”

But the apology had a major impact, and Woods began to lobby for legislation that would allow such sentiments to be shared more regularly by medical institutions.

“It’s unfortunate that it’s necessary,” said Coletta of the bill. “The fear of … being dragged into a malpractice litigation sometimes affects the way people interact.”

McNamara said the bill, if passed, could assist in reducing the number of malpractice and negligence lawsuits filed. He said a similar “benevolent gestures” policy was introduced at the University of Michigan in 2002, and since then, medical malpractice lawsuits have been slashed in half.

“It’s a type of tort reform,” he said of the bill.

Coletta called the legislation “basic,” saying that it simply allows the display of compassion, condolence and sympathy that might have otherwise been used against medical personnel in a court of law.

“This is not a bill that attempts to lessen or eliminate a wrong,” she said in her statement. “It is not meant to sweep aside other factors, circumstances or even legal recourse. But it is intended for physicians and hospitals, often viewed as simply institutional or soulless, to be able to do what is right and say we are sorry.”

Coletta said no one intends the bill to be something medical personnel can hide behind.

McNamara said the legislation will lift a burden off doctors and other hospital personnel, while providing closure to patients and physicians alike.

“The expression of concern is a basic human emotion,” said McNamara. “Doctors have been forced into a culture of silence by hospital administrators.”

McNamara said the bill could also be a way for hospitals and medical institutions to reduce costs.

But those in opposition of the bill, like the Rhode Island Association of Justice, says it oversteps the bounds of the executive branch.

“We recognize doctors wanting to apologize,” said Michael St. Pierre, past president of the RI Association of Justice. “The problem is the legislation as proposed goes beyond allowing doctors to say, ‘I’m sorry,’ and if it prevents legitimately injured people from earning their claims, then that’s a problem.”

St. Pierre said the legislation impacts the rules of evidence as prescribed by the constitution. However, St. Pierre did say that in malpractice suits, lawyers most often use hard physical evidence to stake their claim, not the comments or apologies of staff. But St. Pierre says his problem with the bill is mainly the principal of the matter.

“I think what they’re trying to do has a laudable objective,” said St. Pierre. “But their means are overreaching.”

McNamara said opposition of the bill is coming from a “small group of trial lawyers.”

“If we look at the people [opposing the bill], it’s people who make their living suing and defrauding people,” he said. “They see it as a threat to their income.”

McNamara said he understands where those who specialize in medical malpractice suits may be opposed, but he said that such suits can still proceed.

“This [bill] does not eliminate an individual’s ability to sue, it excludes gestures or expressions of sympathy,” he said. “Negligence can still happen.”

The bill is currently being held for judiciary study, and amendments may be added.

“I think it has an excellent chance of passing,” said McNamara.


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