How to Prevent Lawsuits with Two Simple Words: “I’m Sorry”

Making apologies is a big deal in health care, and it should be in your business, too.

Traditionally, doctors, nurses, and other providers were advised never to apologize, even when they screwed up. Reason: courts might view their apology as an admission of guilt, leading to larger errors-and-omissions insurance judgments.

However, in recent years, an opposing view has emerged—that apologies lead to quicker and less costly E&O insurance settlements. Rather than confronting silence, patients who experience fast and informative disclosure of errors, along with apologies, are much less likely to sue, industry experts say.

According to Doug Wojcieszak, founder of, a medical-malpractice advocacy group, the ideal response to a medical error should be to:

  • Immediately inform the patient and his or her family of an error.
  • Express concern and lay out the next steps in the treatment process.
  • Notify the errors-and-omissions insurance company, risk management staff, and attorney.
  • Arrange to meet with the family and their lawyer to explain what happened and how you will rectify situation.

A majority of states now have laws excluding apologies as proof of errors-and-omissions liability, with promising results. For instance, according to the New England Journal of Medicine, annual litigation costs fell by two-thirds after the University of Michigan Health System instituted a medical-error disclosure program. Similarly, average time to resolve claims and lawsuits feel to 9.5 months, from 20.7 months, and the number of lawsuits fell by more than half, from 262 o 114.

What can insurance and investment professionals learn from the healthcare experience? That making apologies is a powerful weapon for reducing errors-and-omissions lawsuits and increasing customer satisfaction. In fact, it’s such a great technique that it shouldn’t be left just to medical professionals.

So the next time you or one of your employees makes a mistake, accept responsibility and then apologize. Here are some tips that will help you make an effective apology:

When to apologize? Whenever a customer has complained about an insurance policy or investment product you sold.

Where to apologize? Try to take online interactions offline whenever possible. And in-person apologies will always have a better result than ones offered over the phone or via e-mail.

What if you harmed a customer? Then express your concern, but immediately seek advice of counsel. Ask your lawyer if the laws in your state allow you to apologize without increasing your legal liability.

How should you phrase your apology? Make it short, simple, and direct. Just say you regret what happened and that you are very sorry for any inconvenience the customer suffered. Then stop and assess the customer’s reaction.

What further explanation should you make? Assuming the customer reacts positively to your apology, briefly explain what went wrong. Putting the problem in context often reduces the intensity of a dispute. However, don’t try to deflect or minimize your responsibility for the incident. And never blame the customer, even if it was his or her fault.

What if the customer reacts poorly? Then apologize again and probe for why the person is still unhappy. Did you describe the incident incorrectly? Was your apology heartfelt? Did you respond quickly enough?

How should you make things right? Offer something of value to the customer. It doesn’t have to be worth a lot of money. But it must be relevant and meaningful. For example, if you know the client likes to read, perhaps give the person an gift certificate. Just be careful not to give cash, which might be viewed as an illegal premium rebate.

How do you close the apology? End by explaining any next steps to be taken to prevent future incidents. Then repeat your apology and confirm that the consumer accepts it.

Follow this process and you’ll win back your client and prevent errors-and-omissions insurance claims. That’s a win-win for all concerned.

Visit our Ethics Headqurters for more informational resources.