Discuss: The Apology Act

December 11th, 2008 by Kathy McManus

A law distinguishes an apology from an admission of guilt.

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

Consider the apology.

Is saying "I'm sorry" out of fashion?

A lost art?

A species so endangered we need a law to protect it?

Consider "The Apology Act,” a piece of legislation up for debate in Canada and aimed at allowing people to say “I’m sorry” without assuming legal responsibility for their actions.

In other words, saying you’re sorry can’t be used against you later as evidence in civil court. “The goal of the legislation is to encourage sincere apologies,” said the Ontario Attorney General. “Saying sorry for a mistake or wrongdoing is the right thing to do.”

Proponents of the law say the ability to make an apology without legal consequences will help ease hard feelings, resolve disputes, and reduce the number of lengthy, costly lawsuits.

The Apology Act is partly based on the actions of more than 30 states across the U.S. where apology laws have been enacted specifically to make it easier for doctors to say “I’m sorry” instead of “See you in court.” Under those laws, an apology for a medical mistake is inadmissible in court.

Research has found that medical apologies can actually help patients heal and doctors avoid malpractice lawsuits. Both the University of Michigan Health System and the University of Illinois have seen significant drops in malpractice filings since adopting a policy of disclosing medical errors and offering apologies and fair compensation.

Meanwhile, in the greater apology-challenged world, writer Henry Alford has embarked on a policy he calls “reverse etiquette”--supplying a tongue-in-cheek apology when none is forthcoming from an irresponsible offender. After a grocery store clerk dropped Mr. Alford’s apple on the ground, then put it in his bag with nary a word of contrition, Mr. Alford helpfully suggested, “Sorry about that—I really didn’t mean for you to drop that.” The clerk stared, uncomprehending.

“I like to think,” Mr. Alford writes, “that in some instances my behavior, by causing others to wonder what I’m going on about, may help to carry out etiquette’s mandate: to promote empathy.”

Tell us what you think: Do we really need a law in order to take responsibility and apologize? If to err is human and to forgive is divine, why is apologizing so difficult?