Can it hurt to say 'I'm sorry' after a medical mistake?

If you or your loved one has been seriously injured or killed as the result of a medical mistake, you will probably hear the words "I'm sorry" quite a bit from friends and family. People aren't necessarily apologizing for doing anything wrong; they are expressing sympathy for you do during such a difficult time.

You may understand this intent when it comes to your loved ones, but you can interpret similar statements or actions of sympathy from a medical provider very differently. Hearing "I'm sorry" from the person involved in the negligent care could be taken as an admission of wrongdoing. The distinction between these two situations can seem very minute, but it can ultimately have a very serious impact on any legal claim you may decide to file.

In many states, including Tennessee, there are laws in place that define the line between statements of sympathy and statements of fault. The Tennessee law specifies that statements or actions made out of compassion or sympathy will generally be inadmissible. Statements of fault are not inadmissible, meaning they can be used to argue guilt or liability.

As an example, let's imagine a doctor has made a mistake during a complex operation, resulting in brain trauma for the patient.

When discussing the situation, he or she would not be admitting any type of fault or negligence by saying something like, "I'm so sorry. During the operation, there was a loss of oxygen to the brain resulting in damage."

On the other hand, a similar statement can take on a much different meaning. "I'm so sorry. During the operation, we didn't see that the patient was losing oxygen until the damage had already been done."

In both cases, a doctor says, "I'm sorry," but in only one of the scenarios is there potential evidence of liability.

This might make it seem very simple to distinguish between benevolent gestures and an admission of liability, but the truth is it's not always this black-and-white. You don't get to hear two different statements, and you are already in a very difficult situation of processing a negative result of medical care.

While it can be enormously helpful to hear, "I'm sorry" when you or your loved one gets hurt or sick, you may not always know if it might mean more in light of a serious medical event. Discussing the situation with an attorney can help you figure this out and assess what it might mean in the legal context.

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