What’s in an Apology? Why Victims of Wrongdoing Are Not Motivated Solely by Compensation

What’s in an Apology? Why Victims of Wrongdoing Are Not Motivated Solely by Compensation

An expression of contrition and remorse, an apology can go a long way to healing the emotional wounds that fester in the face of wrongdoing. While an apology cannot undo harm that has been caused, it is a way of showing respect and it is an acknowledgement that another individual has emotions that deserve consideration. Children are taught from a very young age to apologize for wrongdoing and to acknowledge the effects of their negative actions on others.

Unfortunately, the proliferation of litigation in recent times has resulted in an adult society that has shunned the simple apology in fear that it will result in an admission of liability or

recrimination. Individuals and corporations are often advised by legal counsel to avoid issuing an apology in cases of alleged wrongdoing.

Doctors and Hospitals for instance, are often cautioned against apologizing for medical errors in order to avoid litigation. They will go to the extent of avoiding all communication with patients in regard to a medical error in order to avoid the possibility that anything said in explanation of what occurred could surface in a law suit.

Ironically, the failure to apologize is sometimes what spurs litigation. Some victims of medical errors commence litigation to seek the answers that they have not received because the doctors and hospitals have been instructed not to communicate with them.

Other litigants are motivated by a desire that there is recognition of the wrongdoing or to ensure that the mistake does not reoccur. It is highly probable that many of these types of litigants may not have commenced litigation had they received an apology.

South Africa embraced the concept of “apology” with the adoption of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the 1990’s. The Commission was created shortly after the abolition of Apartheid and conducted hearings in which victims of violence and human rights abuses could come forward and tell their stories. Perpetrators of the violence and human rights abuses were also encouraged to come forward, admit to their wrongdoings and offer apologies for their actions.

The Commission was vested with jurisdiction to grant amnesty to perpetrators if the crimes committed were politically motivated, proportionate, and there was full and complete disclosure. Approximately 15% of the perpetrators were granted indemnity from criminal and civil prosecution. In 1998 the Commission presented a report which detailed and condemned the abuses that had been committed.

Although the outcome and efficacy of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has been debated by many, the fact that Democracy was attained in South Africa post Apartheid without civil war is likely in part testimony to the value of acknowledging wrongdoing and rendering an apology.

After an outbreak of Listeriosis, the food-borne illness caused by the bacterium Listeria monocytogenes, Maple Leaf Foods conducted a very public campaign in Canada. The company CEO held press conferences, ran advertisements on television and in newspapers and posted an apology on the company website. Instead of being condemned for opening itself to potential lawsuits, the company has been lauded for its effective communication with the public.

On April 15, 2009 a bill (The Apology Act) was introduced in the Ontario Legislature that provides that an apology made would not be admissible in a civil proceeding and would not constitute an admission of liability.

It is not uncommon in our practice to encounter clients who are extremely distressed by the fact that the person or company who caused their injury has never apologized to them or acknowledged their wrongdoing. They will express the fact that they are unable to heal emotionally because of the anger they feel towards those that have caused their injuries. In advocating for our clients, we endeavour to imbue litigation with the human element and attempt to persuade those that we are litigating against that they are dealing with individuals whose emotions are deserving of consideration and respect.

If this legislation is passed, it will be a positive step in recognizing that the victims of wrongdoing are not motivated solely by compensation but are often motivated by the genuine human need for compassion, understanding and the recognition of wrongdoing when it has occurred.

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