pennsylvania becomes 37th state to enact doctor apology law

Up until a few weeks ago, 36 states had enacted so-called “apology laws” allowing physicians to apologize to patients or relatives in the event of a mishap without fear that their statements of sympathy might later be used against them in a medical malpractice lawsuit.

Supporters have long argued that these apology laws reduce animosity by providing patients and their families with much-desired answers, which in turn provides them with closure and reduces the incentive to pursue legal action. However, opponents have argued that these apology laws do nothing more than serve to make otherwise clear statements of liability — including unequivocal statements that negligent actions led to the patient’s unnecessary suffering or death — inadmissible in court, thereby depriving deserving plaintiffs of a vital piece of evidence.

Interestingly, Pennsylvania recently became the 37th state in the nation to enact an apology law after Governor Tom Corbett signed Senate Bill 379, otherwise known as the Benevolent Gesture Medical Professional Liability Act, into law.

The law, which was sponsored by state Sen. Pat Vance (R-Cumberland), enables medical professionals to make benevolent gestures prior to the commencement of any lawsuit, mediation, arbitration or administrative action related to medical malpractice, and not have these gestures used against them provided that they are not statements expressing either fault or liability.

It was likely the inclusion of this last provision — allowing any admissions of liability to still be considered fair game in a medical malpractice lawsuit — that allowed SB 379 to pass so swiftly and gain such widespread bipartisan support in both the state House and Senate. It also explains why the medical, business and legal communities, which are often on opposite sides of this issue, were unified in their support.

“Senate Bill 379 does not relieve health-care providers of liability nor does it take away a patient’s right to sue,” said an official with the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry. “The bill merely allows medical professionals to be human; to express the concern and sympathy one would expect when a medical mistake has occurred.”

It will certainly be interesting to see what impact the Benevolent Gesture Medical Professional Liability Act has here in the Keystone State. In the meantime, those who feel that they have been victimized by medical negligence should always consider consulting with an experienced legal professional to learn more about their rights and their legal options.

Source: The Pennsylvania Record, “Corbett signs ‘benevolent gesture’ bill into law,” Jon Campisi, Oct. 25, 2013; The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “For doctors, hospitals, ‘sorry’ is a hard word to say,” Amaris Elliot-Engel, Feb. 25, 2013 

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