Feature

Ruling: Apologies can’t be used against doctors in court


 

The Ohio Supreme Court has ruled that apologies by physicians that include an admission of fault cannot be used against them in court, upholding a lower court decision that spared a doctor’s comments from being heard at trial.

In a Sept. 12 decision, state Supreme Court justices concluded that Ohio’s apology statute protects both expressions of regret for an unanticipated outcome and acknowledgments that the patient’s treatment fell below the standard of care. The decision resolves a split among Ohio appeals courts over whether expressions of fault are admissible.

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The decision declaring Ohio’s apology statute “unambiguous” is an important and clarifying ruling for physicians and settles the differing opinions of some lower courts, said Reginald Fields, director of external and professional relations for the Ohio State Medical Association.

“We applaud the high court’s decision,” Mr. Fields said in an interview. “Even the two dissenting justices agreed that the apology law is clear; they just questioned whether it applied in this particular case. This ruling likely means pending legislation thought to be needed to clarify the law is now unnecessary. The OSMA will now focus on other aspects of tort reform, such as ‘loss of chance’ claims and further elimination of frivolous lawsuits.”

The Ohio Association for Justice, the state’s plaintiffs’ bar did not respond to a request for comment.

The case of Stewart v. Vivian resulted from a lawsuit filed by Dennis Stewart against Cincinnati psychiatrist Rodney Vivian, MD, after the death of Mr. Stewart’s wife by suicide. Michelle Stewart was admitted to the emergency department of Mt. Orab MediCenter in February 2010 after attempting suicide and was later transferred to the psychiatric unit at Mercy Hospital Clermont in Batavia, Ohio. After consulting with nurses, Dr. Vivian ordered that a staff member of the psychiatric unit visually observe Ms. Stewart every 15 minutes, according to court documents. The next evening, Mr. Stewart arrived at the psychiatric unit to visit his wife and found her unconscious as a result of hanging.

Two days later, Dr. Vivian went to Ms. Stewart’s room in the intensive care unit to speak with family members. The content of the conversation between Dr. Vivian and family members is disputed. Family members allege that Dr. Vivian expressed that it was a “terrible situation” and that the patient had told Dr. Vivian that she “wanted to be dead” would “keep trying” to kill herself. Dr. Vivian testified that he told the family he was “sorry this has happened.” Ms. Stewart was later taken off life support and died.

In 2011, Mr. Stewart sued Dr. Vivian and Mercy Hospital Clermont for medical malpractice, loss of spousal consortium, and wrongful death. Dr. Vivian argued that his statements to family members in the ICU room were inadmissible under the state’s apology law because they were “intended to express commiseration, condolence, or sympathy.” Mr. Stewart countered that Dr. Vivian’s statements were admissible because they were not “pure expressions of apology, sympathy, commiseration, condolence, compassion, or a general sense of benevolence.” The trial court sided with Dr. Vivian and his statements were kept from trial testimony. The jury returned a verdict in favor of Dr. Vivian, concluding that he was not negligent in his assessment, care, or treatment.

The 12th District Court of Appeals ruled that Dr. Vivian’s statements were properly excluded, finding that the Ohio’s apology law is ambiguous because according to the term’s dictionary definition, “apology” may or may not include an admission of fault. But the decision conflicted with the case of Davis v. Wooster Orthopaedics & Sports Medicine, Inc. in which the Court of Appeals for the 9th District in Ohio determined Ohio’s apology statute protects from admission “pure expressions of apology, sympathy, commiseration, condolence, compassion, or a general sense of benevolence,” but not “admission of fault.”

Resolving the split, the Ohio Supreme Court concluded that the state law is unambiguous and that its legislative intent is to shield expressions of regret for unexpected outcomes that may include acknowledgments that the patient’s medical care fell below the standard of care.

Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justice William M. O’Neill partially dissented. While they agreed with the majority’s holding regarding the intent of Ohio’s apology law, Justice O’Connor wrote that the Dr. Vivian’s statements fell outside the law’s protection.

“Dr. Vivian’s statements were not an apology nor did they express regret or a type of shared sadness associated with sympathy or commiseration,” she wrote in her dissent.

At least 36 states have apology laws that shield against certain statements, expressions, or other evidence related to disclosures being used against physicians in court.

agallegos@frontlinemedcom.com

On Twitter @legal_med

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