Law & Medicine

Medical errors and the law



In a wrongful-death action, the plaintiff argued that the statute did not prohibit the use of statements of fault, responsibility, or liability as compared to statements of sympathy or condolence.

Ohio’s Ninth Appellate District concluded that the intent behind the apology statute was to protect pure expressions of sympathy but not admissions of fault. The court held that Dr. Knapic’s statements constituted an admission of liability that could be admitted into evidence. The jury awarded damages of $3 million.

More recently, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that Dr. Randall Smith’s alleged confession regarding accidentally sectioning his patient’s common bile duct was properly excluded from evidence, even though the incident took place before the Ohio law went into effect.5

The patient had to be readmitted within 3 weeks for obstructive jaundice. After the doctor informed her that she would have to undergo additional surgery, she became very emotional. He reportedly took her hand, saying, “I take full responsibility for this.”

The Ohio Supreme Court ruled, “The trial court had determined that Dr. Smith was faced with a distressed patient who was upset and made a statement that was designed to comfort his patient. This is precisely the type of evidence that R.C. 2317.43 was designed to exclude as evidence of liability in a medical-malpractice case.”

Do disclosures and apologies work?

Both claim frequency and severity have diminished following the adoption of a humanistic risk management policy at the Lexington Veterans Affairs Medical Center since 1987.6 The protocol includes early injury review, steadfast maintenance of the relationship between the hospital and the patient, proactive disclosure to patients who have been injured because of accidents or medical negligence, and fair compensation for injuries.

Other institutions such as the University of Michigan have adopted “disclosure and offer” in place of “denial and defend” policies, but these have yet to achieve widespread use.

Many health care providers continue to heed the traditional legal advice to say and admit nothing, believing that it is unsettled whether an apology will influence any decision to sue the doctor. They argue that the odds of a lawsuit are low to begin with.

In the oft-cited Harvard study, there was only one malpractice claim for every 7.6 adverse events caused by negligence among the 3.7% of hospitalized patients who suffered significant iatrogenic injuries, typically from errors or negligence.7

Notwithstanding the controversy, the AMA has properly taken the moral high ground: It asserts that error disclosure is the right thing to do.


1. BMJ. 2016 May 3;353:i2139.

2. Institute of Medicine: To Err is Human: Building a Safer Health System. National Academy Press, Washington, 2000.

3. Estate of Velasquez v. Albertsons, Inc. et al., Civ. No. A-103-042 (Ector Cnty, TX 1999).

4. Davis v. Wooster Orthopaedics & Sports Medicine, Inc., 193 Ohio App.3d 581 (2011).

5. Estate of Johnson v. Randall Smith, Inc., 131 Ohio St.3d 1543 (2013).

6. N Engl J Med. 2010 Apr 15;362(15):1353-6.

7. N Engl J Med. 1991 Jul 25;325(4):245-51.

Dr. Tan is emeritus professor of medicine and a former adjunct professor of law at the University of Hawaii. This article is meant to be educational and does not constitute medical, ethical or legal advice. It is adapted from the author’s book, “Medical Malpractice: Understanding the Law, Managing the Risk” (2006). For additional information, readers may contact the author at


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