The Apology Rule

March 7, 2014

Lawrence v. Mountainstar Healthcare, — P.3d —, 2014 WL 685594 (Utah App. 2014)

In this case, Utah’s Court of Appeals sharpened the distinction between two categories of doctors’ statements: (1) “we messed up” statements that acknowledge a complication or fault; and (2) statements expressing the doctor’s benevolence and apology for what happened to the patient. The Court held that fault statements are admissible as a party admission, whereas apology statements are privileged under Utah’s “apology rule”: Utah Code Ann. § 78B–3–422, Utah R. Evid. 409. The “apology rule” renders privileged care-providers’ statements that express “apology, sympathy, commiseration, condolence, or compassion; … and a general sense of benevolence”; or describe “the sequence of events relating to the unanticipated outcome of medical care.”

The Court carried out this analysis in connection with a patient’s malpractice suit against a hospital. The Court ruled that the patient was entitled to adduce the hospital’s “we messed up” statements that acknowledged its nurse’s negligence (but nevertheless dismissed the patient’s appeal).

This decision presents an interesting puzzle. Under Utah law, when a doctor approaches his patient’s spouse and says “I am sorry we messed up,” this sentence will be redacted into the privileged “I am sorry” and the unprivileged “We messed up.” This approach motivates doctors to formulate their apologies narrowly and never apologize spontaneously. But calculated apologies are not what the “apology rule” wanted to incentivize. Calculated apologies are lacking the genuine apologies’ virtue and benefit the patient and her family only when the doctor is insincere. This undesirable consequence is an example of what T.M. Scanlon calls “the teleological paradox” in his book What We Owe to Each Other (1998).

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