Strout v. Cent. Me. Med. Ctr. – Apology Statutes Exclude Admissions of Guilt

Strout v. Cent. Me. Med. Ctr. – Apology Statutes Exclude Admissions of Guilt

personal_injuryThe American Medical Association Code of Ethics requires that when a patient suffers significant medical complications resulting from physician error, the doctor is ethically required to tell the patient all the facts necessary to understand what happened. Those guidelines further state that concern about legal liability shouldn’t affect the decision to speak candidly with the patient. 

Most physicians agree with this principle in theory. In practice, however, it’s not the norm.

Florida’s “I’m sorry” law requires an appropriately-trained person to inform each patient in person about adverse incidents that have resulted in serious harm. Those admissions cannot be used in court.

Still, correspondence outside of this narrow definition could be considered fair game for civil litigation.

In the recent case of Stout v. Cent. Me. Med. Ctr., the issue was whether a letter from a hospital president to a disgruntled patient following a botched diagnosis was in fact an admission of guilt that could be used in court.

Maine too has an “I’m sorry” law, codified in 24 MRS 2907(2). However, the court determined the letter was still admissible.

According to court records, the plaintiff sought treatment for abdominal pain at the hospital emergency room, and a CAT scan revealed a large legion on his liver. The doctor examined the scan and determined he was most likely suffering from either hepatic pancreatic cancer.

A week later at a follow-up, the doctor indicated more tests were still being run, but indicated that patients with this kind of cancer, even with chemotherapy, have an average life expectancy of less than one year. It was indicated his life may be measured in months.

Several weeks later, the patient’s test results indicated he did not suffer from either of the cancers the doctor had opined. Rather, he had a different type of cancer that has a five-year survival rate of 85 to 90 percent.

The plaintiff then sent a complaint to the president of the hospital. The president responded with a letter to the patient. He indicated both he and the doctor were saddened to learn the incorrect diagnosis was so difficult for the family, but that the doctor did truly believe the patient was dealing with an aggressive Stage 4 cancer. However, the president said that while the doctor was trying to be helpful in sharing his clinical impressions, he recognized in hindsight he should have waited until a biopsy confirmed the results.

The plaintiff filed a notice of claim shortly thereafter, seeking damages for emotional distress, loss of enjoyment of life and lost income.

The hospital moved to exclude the president’s letter from evidence, asserting that it was an expression of sympathy, not an admission of guilt.

The court admitted a redacted version of the letter into evidence, one that focused solely on the statement that the doctor should have waited for biopsy results.

A jury awarded the defendant $200,000.

The hospital appealed, arguing the letter fell within the state’s Apology Statute. However, the Maine Supreme Court noted there was nothing in the language of the law that indicates that just because admissions of fault are accompanied by expressions of apology, that they must be included.

Admissions of fault, per the state statute, is an exception to the Apology Statute.

How We Can Help
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