Saying sorry with no strings attached

Jim Coyle

Forgiveness, a sage once said, is the vestibule of heaven. If so, apology must be the pathway to it.

In the nit-picky world of contemporary Ontario politics – where clotheslines, lawn treatments and convenience-store displays have lately dominated attention – Liberal David Orazietti is championing an initiative that’s both inherently humble and rather more profound.

The Sault Ste. Marie MPP has sponsored a private member’s bill called the Apology Act, which last week received second reading in the Legislature.

The bill would allow an individual or organization to apologize for an accident or wrongdoing without it being considered an admission of liability admissible in a civil proceeding.

In other words, it would allow people to behave as human beings, not just potential litigants.

People could communicate “compassion, sorrow and regret for a mistake without worrying that it could later be used against them,” said Orazietti, whose bill has been supported by provincial hospital, doctors’ and bar associations.

To a large extent, the culture of “deny and defend” was the offspring of the medical, legal and insurance worlds. Institutions and professional associations counselled members, he said, not to apologize or acknowledge errors because of potential liability.

But that fear prevented people from doing what decency and compassion often inclined them to, Orazietti argued.

For instance, a crane operator could unintentionally knock something over and injure a long-time workmate on a construction site, he said.

“If they run over to their side, as most people would, to try to help them, to get them some medical attention and to say they’re sorry … – those comments, if there are other people around, can be used against them in a court.”

In other jurisdictions, including B.C., Saskatchewan and Manitoba, this type of legislation has reduced pressure on civil courts as well as reduced liability costs to public institutions such as hospitals, Orazietti said.

Last Sunday, the New York Times reported that 34 states have enacted laws making apologies for medical errors inadmissible in court.

Before they became presidential rivals, the Times said, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama co-sponsored federal legislation that would have made apologies inadmissible, though the measure died in committee.

According to a study cited in the American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education, 37 per cent of patients filing medical malpractice suits in the U.S. said they might not have done so had an apology been received, said Orazietti.

It’s a statistic that supports the wisdom of the ages – that acknowledgement of harms done another can go a long way to making peace; and that the inability to apologize, and unwillingness to forgive, creates – between cultures and nations as between individuals and families – destructive cycles of resentment.

The bill was referred, after its approval in principle, to a legislative committee. There, further analysis may well consider everything from the counsel of the ancients to the latest celebrity screw-up.

There will be opportunity to study the cultural history of the apology – how humanity has reconciled and got past its man-made mishaps and calamities.

There promises as well to be a review of some of the more notorious apologies of recent times – the public grovellings undertaken by notables penitent (or wanting to seem so) for everything from infidelity to impaired driving.

For instance, New Democrat Peter Kormos said he feared a boom market, under the legislation, in self-serving “pseudo-apologies” designed to disarm victims of wrongdoing, that an apology made without import was really no apology at all.

“As if Bill Clinton hasn’t denigrated the mea culpa enough already,” he noted.

An outlook that might, we’re not sorry to say, make for entertaining hearings.

Jim Coyle’s provincial affairs column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

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