An Apology to Skip the Courtroom

Acts of contrition can bring settlements rather than lawsuits.

By Colin Allen, published on September 1, 2003 - last reviewed on January 23, 2015

'My mistake, I'm sorry" may be all it takes to lower the number of
lawsuits in our legal system. Research from the University of
Missouri-Columbia found that a full apology can avert lawsuits; promoting
the more amicable and less costly use of settlements to resolve legal
conflict.

"The conventional wisdom has been: Don't apologize," says Jennifer
Robbennolt, study author and professor of law at Missouri. By the time a
case reaches the courtroom, forgiveness may be taken as an admission of
guilt. "Maybe we ought to rethink that," she argues.

Robbennolt asked 145 volunteers what they would do in a theoretical
situation where they were injured by a cyclist. When given a full
apology, 73 percent chose the settlement offer. A partial apology, an
expression of sympathy while accepting no responsibility of guilt, led to
52 percent settling. Without any apology, 35 percent chose a settlement
over a trail.

"It changes the recipient's perception about the other person,"
explains Robbennolt "With a full apology, people were more likely to
think that the wrongdoer would be more careful in the future and would
have more regret."

Robbennolt plans to do follow-up research to see if apologies could
work at a corporate level. The study is to be published in the December
issue of the
Michigan Law Review.