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Mark Bello
Mark Bello
Attorney • (877) 377-7848

Malpractice Trial of James Woods’ Brother (Michael): The Power of Apology in Litigation

7 comments

I am certain that I am not telling you something you don’t already know; an apology goes a long way to beginning to repair a damaged relationship or righting a wrong. Knowing that someone is truly sorry for the hurt he/she has caused is an important step in moving forward. An apology also serves to acknowledge a mistake, intentional or unintentional, and, further, serves as notice, even if unstated, that a person will try his/her hardest not to repeat the offending conduct.

However, the apology must be sincere; a “phony” apology will have an effect that is opposite of what the apologist may truly intend. If one says “I’m sorry”, one must mean it.

As you may or may not know, the family of Michael Woods, brother of actor James Woods, has settled a high profile, hotly contested medical malpractice lawsuit against Kent Hospital in Rhode Island. Yes, there was an undisclosed financial settlement, but that is not the point. There were two additional aspects of the resolution of the case; without them, the trial would, likely, have continued to a contentious verdict and endless appeals. The two additional features of the settlement, you ask? The first was a sincere apology from hospital president Sandra L. Coletta who had dinner with the actor the evening before the settlement and offered the apology for the hospital’s role in his brother’s death. The second important feature of the settlement was a promise from the hospital to invest $1.25 Million over the next five years into the creation of the “Michael J. Woods Institute” at Kent Hospital. A separate board (which will include a Woods family member) will run the institute which will assist in developing new procedures and training for hospital staff members. Coletta said:


“We know we’re not perfect at Kent Hospital… Mistakes were made. We can do better.”

The Woods lawsuit was filed two years ago, alleging that Kent staffers missed or ignored signs and symptoms of Michael Woods’ impending heart attack. Staffers allegedly left Woods unattended, in a hallway, on a hospital gurney, until the heart attack occurred and killed him. The highly publicized and contentious lawsuit included harsh public words of criticism for the hospital from James Woods. At a news conference announcing the settlement, James Woods praised Coletta and called her “very gracious”. This is quite a change in rhetoric; it is amazing what a sincere apology can accomplish. James Woods said that Coletta had apologized to his family and, further, admonished the press:

“Let’s not rub anyone’s nose in anything,” he said. “They did do it (the apology) and people don’t do it…I don’t want to put her in the position of saying it twice.”

He indicated that the apology was the framework for the settlement. The process started with a phone call from the hospital president; during the call, Woods said, he heard something he had been waiting to hear for over two years: Someone from Kent Hospital was saying “I’m sorry” for his family’s tragic loss.

Ironically, the definitive book on the subject of the effect of an apology to patient or a patient’s family who believes to have been wronged by a hospital or physician was written by someone named (I kid you not) Michael Woods; the book is called Healing Words: The Power of Apology in Medicine”, by Michael Woods, MD. In the book, "the other Michael Woods" opines that the words "I’m sorry" do not seem to be in the average doctor’s playbook when conversing with patients or their families. Dr. Woods offers his colleagues his "four R’s of apology", to help assuage patients and reduce the incidents of malpractice lawsuits. The “four R’s” are:

· Recognition – Knowledge that an apology is in order. Read the feelings of the patient and family.

· Regret – Respond with appropriate empathy. Express regret for what the patient or his family is going through. Acknowledge their feelings. Expressing regret is not an admission of guilt or fault.

· Responsibility – Own up to what’s happened and be accountable, even if it was unforeseeable. Disclose and explain details that led to the outcome.

· Remedy – Do what it takes to make it right. Explain corrective measures to the patient and his family. Make them realize that you will not to abandon them.

Here is more from Dr. Woods:

"No matter what role you play (in the health care field)…at one time or another you’ve been a consumer of medical services. Try to remember the last time a doctor apologized to you, even for a relatively minor infraction like keeping you waiting. Can you recall a single instance? If you’re a clinician, consider these questions: When was the last time you told a patient I’m sorry? When did you last hear another physician apologize to a patient?”

As an attorney with 33 years experience in handling personal injury and medical malpractice lawsuits as a litigator and, over the last 10 years, as a litigation funding specialist, I have never had the experience of hearing an apology from a medical professional to any client of mine. Lawsuit Financial has provided lawsuit funding for legal professionals all over the United States; not a single one of these professionals has ever reported that the impetus for settlement was a sincere apology. I invite legal professionals who are reading this post to comment on whether they have been involved in litigation where an apology was given and assisted in resolving the case.

Most medical professionals, I presume, are afraid that an apology will serve as an admission of liability. However, much litigation is conducted in anger; I submit, as does Dr. Woods, that fostering a less contentious legal environment, one of increased cooperation, should result in an improved, less adversarial, atmosphere for case resolution. Dr. Woods proposes an appeal to our basic humanity, an appeal to our capacity to forgive. A patient’s relationship with his/her doctor, positive or negative, will have a substantial impact on whether that patient will institute litigation for a medical mistake. And, an already positive relationship will only be enhanced by a sincere apology for a medical mistake. “Bedside manner” is an important tool for any physician. As Dr. Woods says:

“…when a doctor’s interpersonal and communication skills are as good as his or her technical abilities, the results are good for everyone: better patient outcomes, more patient referrals, lower employee turnover, and better risk management."

Lawsuit Financial, the pro-justice lawsuit funding company, congratulates the Woods family and Kent hospital on sensibly resolving a contentious medical malpractice lawsuit. We sincerely hope that this resolution model becomes more prevalent in medical-legal litigation resolution.

7 Comments

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  1. ISABEL BARNES says:
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    INDEED APOLOGY’ WAY IS THE BEST ONE…
    ANYWAY WE THANK ACTOR JAMES WOODS FIGHTING FOR JUSTICE. LOT OF PEOPLE WILL BENEFIT FROM THIS CASE. THANK YOU AGAIN, MR WOODS.

    ISABEL

  2. Just a Dad says:
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    After our trial instead of apologizing the doctors wife said she wished she could spit as us after her husband lost a trial resulting in the brain injury of our daughter.

  3. Mark Bello says:
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    “Dad”: I know it is hard to describe what your “might have done”. but please share with us what difference an acknowledgement of the error and a sincere apology would have meant in terms of whether the case could have been resolved without a trial, with less hurt or anger, or for less money. As to the doctor’s wife, her insensitivity and lack of class is nauseating. Thanks for you comments. Regards, Mark

  4. Steve Lombardi says:
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    Very interesting Mark…I wrote earlier this year about fake apologies created by the apology shield.

  5. Just a Dad says:
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    No one is perfect & doctors make mistakes. The problem is they are conditioned to protect themselves rather that admit any fallibility. After the doctors delivered the news that our daughter had suffered multiple strokes our primary care physician immediately went into “defense” mode repeat ably saying … “Sometimes bad things happen to good people”. As we were sitting outside the NICU, the conversation which was only about 3 minutes is still etched in our mind. He explained he did nothing wrong and repeated that “bad things happen to good people”. That was the extent of his acknowledgement and he remained unapologetic until the trial where he got emotional on the stand.

    Although respectfully my disappointment is not only directed towards the doctors and hospitals unrelenting denial of any wrongdoing but also the process in general and even the uncaring, arrogance of the attorneys too. Our daughter was simply $$$ for our attorney and never did we feel our attorney cared any more than the doctors. I understand it’s a business. But it’s a business born from the suffering of an innocent person … and it is an experience we never hope to go through again. Compassion from both the medical AND legal professions would have made a difficult time … easier. But again … when such large amount of money and egos are on the line … the victim feelings are usually of the least importance. IMHO.

  6. Mark Bello says:
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    “Dad”: Thanks for sharing your experiences with both the medical and legal communities. I am truly sorry that your attorney treated you with ‘arrogance’ and a lack of compassion. Hopefully he, at the very least, did a fair job for you and your family. With that said, I challenge all attorneys reading these comments to heed “Dad’s” words. These are gut-wrenching, traumatic real experiences that happen to real people, just like you and me. As I have said in many blogs I have written, we are all just one unfortunate moment or event from being victims, ourselves. Rather than treating patients or clients as ‘commodities’, I suggest that we all take a step back, put ourselves in the shoes of the unfortunate patient/client/victim, and ask how we would prefer to be treated by the people we retain to address our health and legal care. If we all did that, perhaps those in the medical and/or legal professions would be held in higher esteem by the general public.

  7. Yon Rog says:
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    As a physician, I guess the key question I have for Just A Dad is whether your family doc actually did do something wrong or missed something he shouldn’t have. What terrifies us most is NOT making a mistake but being punished for a tragic outcome that no reasonable doctor could foresee. I have a feeling that Michael Woods may have been one of these cases (a sore throat and vomiting in man in his 40s does not automatically scream ‘heart attack’) and Kent simply knew that they’d lose from bad publicity even if they had really done nothing wrong.

    The mantra of “if someone died, it must be someone’s fault” has been abused to no end. Sometimes horrible diseases strike young, healthy people who don’t fit any risk profile, and it’s such a horrible fact that society has trouble facing it. So they punish someone who didn’t make a mistake at all.

    If your doctor made a mistake that injured your child, you did the right thing by suing him. If he did not, and you sued him because you were angry and devastated at a situation he did not cause and managed to win a court case, then you did something terribly wrong to him and his family. Only you know for sure.