An Apology to Skip the Courtroom

Acts of contrition can bring settlements rather than lawsuits.

By Colin Allen, published September 1, 2003 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

'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.