Just before the Pennsylvania General Assembly retired for its summer
break, the state Senate passed legislation that would allow healthcare professionals to apologize to patients who were victims of doctors’ error without fear of their words being used against them in civil court.
Senate Bill 379, which was sponsored by Republican State Sens. Patricia Vance and Gene Yaw, makes any so-called “benevolent gesture” made by a healthcare provider, assisted living residence or personal care home prior to the filing of a medical malpractice lawsuit inadmissible as evidence of liability or an admission against interest.
A benevolent gesture, as defined in the proposal, is any action that conveys a “sense of apology, explanation, or compassion emanating from humane impulses,” Vance stated in her Dec. 11 legislative sponsorship memorandum.
In the memo, the senator, who represents parts of York and Cumberland Counties in south-central Pennsylvania, noted that studies have shown that a large percentage of patients and families may not have filed medical malpractice complaints if they were offered an explanation and/or apology regarding the act of negligence.
“Apology has proven a dramatically effective way of resolving conflict and preventing litigation,” Vance said in a statement following the June 28 passage of S.B. 379. “Recent studies have shown once given an explanation and apology many patients and families decide not to pursue a medical malpractice lawsuit. I’m pleased all stakeholders were able to come together to move this bill forward.”
Yaw, the co-sponsor, also praised the Senate vote, calling the proposed legislation a “great compromise.”
“It allows doctors to make expressions of sympathy without fear that those expressions will be used as a weapon against them, yet the legislation still preserves the rights of individuals to pursue claims for substandard healthcare,” Yaw stated. “I commend Senator Vance on her perseverance in promoting this legislation over several years.”
According to Vance’s office, 36 states, the District of Columbia and the territory of Guam have provisions allowing medical professionals to make apologies or sympathetic gestures without fear of reprisal.
The measure was sent to the state House of Representatives for consideration.
According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, a 2011 version of the benevolent gesture bill never made it out of the Senate because it lumped together outright admission of negligence with apologies and other benevolent gestures as statements inadmissible at trial.
Vance, who is a registered nurse, first introduced a benevolent gesture bill back in 2009.