By JIM BARON
PROVIDENCE — Movie and TV star James Woods appeared at the Statehouse Wednesday to testify in favor of a bill that would allow doctors and hospitals to express sympathy or acknowledge errors to patients and family members when medical treatment goes awry without it being held against them in later court actions.
Woods, who grew up in Warwick and attended Pilgrim High School, was involved in a high-profile 2009 lawsuit against Kent Hospital after his brother, Michael, died there from a heart attack in 2006. He and his family settled the suit after hospital CEO Sandra Colletta apologized for errors in Michael’s treatment and an institute was founded at the hospital in Michael Woods name to help train staff and improve procedures.
“When a person says ‘I’m sorry’ to you and you understand the circumstances of the events,” Woods told reporters and spectators who had gathered for a legislative hearing, “and then someone says can we arbitrate this and try to come to some kind of understanding…I guarantee you that rather than waiting seven years, having a battle where you are the underdog to win it, no matter what the circumstances, depending on the quality of your legal representation and a million other factors that are out of your control, the idea of having something resolved through well-intentioned, truly compassionate — not corporate, insincere baloney, but true compassion — you’re going to have a result that is very rewarding to both sides.”
In settling the case by the hospital paying $1.25 million over five years to establish the institute — along with undisclosed payments to Michael Woods’ children — Woods said “a
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phoenix arose from the ashes of this tragedy.”
His voice breaking up briefly, Woods said he has often told Colletta “if one life could have been saved in my brother’s name, then all this finally would have been worth it. And it started with two simple words, ‘I’m sorry.’
“So while I don’t believe in certain kinds of I’m sorry, I don’t believe in the (former New York Congressman) Anthony Weiner, (former President) Bill Clinton brand, which is usually just an excuse to commit the same crime or the same sin all over again, I do believe when a person acts in a way – or an institution, even – is sorry and says how can we truly correct it and make it better?
“What Mrs. Colletta did, what Sandy, my friend has done, is to take this tragedy and learn from it.”
The legislation is sponsored by Warwick Rep. Joseph McNamara who described it Wednesday as the “I’m Sorry bill.”
“This act would provide for expressions of sympathy in statements by health care providers to a patient’s family regarding the outcome of treatment that are benevolent gestures to be inadmissible as evidence or as admission of liability in a civil action. At a time when doctors and hospitals are desperate to improve the quality of care today, apologizing for a medical mistake may seem like almost a suicidal gesture for medical practitioners.”
McNamara said 36 states have passed similar legislation “and they have seen improvements in the number of malpractice suits that have been brought against those medical practitioners.
When the University of Michigan’s health care facility adopted a policy in 2002 of allowing medical practitioners to apologize, McNamara said, it saw a 50 percent reduction in malpractice suits over a five year period.
But Don Migliori, president of the RI Association for Justice, a trial lawyers’ organization, said McNamara’s bill is not as benign as it sounds and is actually “tort reform” by other means.
“If it was truly about ‘I’m sorry,’ the bill would behalf as long as it is,” Migliori said. “The problem is, the second part of the bill actually takes away the rights of patients who choose to sue to present evidence in the case” that are currently guaranteed by existing courtroom rules.
This is a way, he said, “to use a compassionate argument to then get in subsequent part of the bill a protection against lawsuits, even legitimate lawsuits. ‘I’m sorry is a blanket that doctors want to throw on bad conduct and as long as you say I’m sorry, everything you cover up with that I’m sorry blanket is kept out of the courtroom.
“Using the concept of compassion and I’m sorry, medical providers are trying to get a protection that nobody else has, not plumbers, not contractors, not drivers of cars,” he said.
If a driver at a car accident says, “I’m sorry, I had too much to drink,” Migliori explained, “it can be used against you. But a doctor who says “I’m sorry, I had too much to drink, has not only the protection of that statement, but everything the doctor did to protect it – any corrective action as a result of the mistake – is also inadmissible under this statement.
“People who have legitimate claims are then precluded from bringing those claims when what flows from the I’m sorry is conduct that fixes what’s wrong,” Migliori said.
He added that the legislature is being asked to do something that belongs to the judiciary, which he claims is a potential violation of separation of powers.