Aaron Lazare, M.D., noted author of On Apology and the former dean of University of Massachusetts Medical School, has written and spoken extensively about the components of a meaningful apology. In one article he summarized it as follows:
There are up to four parts to an effective apology, though not every apology requires all four parts. They are as follows.
- A valid acknowledgment of the offense that makes clear who the offender is and who is the offended. The offender must clearly and completely acknowledge the offense.
- An effective explanation, which shows an offense was neither intentional nor personal, and is unlikely to recur.
- Expressions of remorse, shame, and humility, which show that the offender recognizes the suffering of the offended.
- A reparation of some kind, in the form of a real or symbolic compensation for the offender’s transgression.
In representing people who have survived life-altering injuries as a result of someone else’s negligence, over the years I have looked for appropriate opportunities to incorporate these elements into the settlement of personal injury cases, when it is something that clients want to do.
With the permission of one of my amazing former clients, let me tell you how this worked in one case. Two teenage boys decided to drive down a dark, residential road just after dark one evening, for the “thrill” of it, to see how far they could go without having to turn on their lights. Unfortunately, a mother of three was crossing the street in front of her house, to take groceries to a neighbor who had been ill. The car hit her at full speed, threw her onto the windshield and roof of the car, and then onto the side of the road. Her husband heard the noise outside and was the first to reach her. As he described in a victim witness statement as part of the criminal case, “She was unconscious and not breathing properly. There was so much blood I had to use my hands and my shirt to scoop the blood away from her airways so she would stay alive.” She sustained a major brain injury, numerous fractures throughout her body, two strokes, and a pulmonary embolism, among other injuries. She was in a coma (either trauma-induced or drug-induced) for 20 days, she had 6 surgeries (including placing hardware), and is left with permanent effects of these injuries. Fortunately, though, she survived. She spent 2 ½ months as an inpatient, and the medical bills exceeded $489,931.96.
Remarkably, this inspiring family did not want retribution, but wanted to make sure that the driver took meaningful responsibility for his actions so that he (and others) could learn from it. Through the victim impact statement process, we worked with the District Attorney’s office to help them, and the Court, understand the family’s views and concerns about sentencing in the criminal case. Ultimately, in either the civil or the criminal case, all of the following occurred:
- Payment of policy limits of the driver’s auto policy;
- Personal payments in a reasonable amount from the driver to the family, annually for 5 years from the date of the settlement, from his personal funds, guaranteed by the driver’s parents [the amounts were intended to remind him of the ongoing harm that the family would be going through, without bankrupting him];
- Payment from the passenger’s auto policy, with the assistance of testimony from the defendant;
- A written apology from the driver, acknowledging that while it was never his intent to harm anyone, there was no excuse for what he did;
- A speech by the defendant at a school assembly, apologizing for what he did and explaining to his classmates the reason that this dangerous “game” among some of them had to stop;
- Mandatory time volunteering at a brain rehabilitation center;
- Loss of driver’s license for 3 years;
- House arrest over one summer which allowed him to continue working and would not interfere with entering college.
It was such a privilege to represent this incredibly enlightened and wonderful family. The last time I spoke with the client, she told me that the comprehensive resolution of this case helped her to feel that justice had been done, and she forgave the driver for how he forever changed her life. It is hard to think of a better example of putting Aaron Lazare’s thoughts on apology and forgiveness to better use in a motor vehicle-pedestrian collision case.