Dateline: February, 2011, Issue 1

How do apologies affect settlement demands?

Lawyers frequently advise defendants against apologizing, because apologies can be interpreted as admissions of guilt, which could be leveraged into defendants paying more money in settlement and/or at trial.

Robbennolt (2010) conducted research comparing plaintiffs' responses to apologies with attorneys' responses.

The research studied settlement negotiations in a hypothetical personal injury case in which a bicyclist injures a pedestrian. Over 300 adults took on the role of the pedestrian plaintiff. During settlement negotiations, the bicyclist offered the plaintiff pedestrian either no apology, a partial apology (expression of sympathy but no acceptance of responsibility) or a full apology accepting responsibility.

Plaintiffs who received full apologies:

The nature of the apology was critical. Apologies that merely expressed sympathy worked only inconsistently because many plaintiffs took them to be insincere, which sometimes caused more indignation on the plaintiff's part, rather than less. Full apologies were, by far, the most effective.

Robbennolt then surveyed attorneys using the same pedestrian-bicyclist personal injury scenario, and asked them to assume they were representing the plaintiff. Apologies influenced the attorneys in ways that diverged from the ways they influenced their clients:

Robbennolt reviews other research showing full apologies are effective in a wide variety of legal cases including wrongful termination, medical malpractice, tenant-landlord, and other personal injury litigation.

Robbennolt concludes that expressions of remorse directly affect the way legal settlements unfold, and it is important for attorneys to understand how their responses to apologies differ from those of their clients, with most plaintiffs lowering their bottom-line price if offered a full apology.

Source Robbennolt, J.K. (2010). Apologies and settlement. Court Review, 45, pp. 90-97.