Does an apology impact settlement demands?

In a previous post, we have discussed the importance of a true and genuine apology. The same blog post also discussed how Americans are often advised against apologizing in mediation and civil lawsuits because an apology is often seen as admission of guilt. Attorneys often tell their clients an apology can be leveraged by the defendants to pay more money in settlement and/or at trial. However, there is more to be understood when it comes to apologies and settlement demands.

Robbennolt conducted a study comparing plaintiffs’ responses to attorneys’ responses to apologies in a hypothetical personal injury lawsuit where a bicyclist injured a pedestrian. 300 adults took on the role of the injured pedestrian and were provided with either no apology, a partial apology with sympathy, but no acceptance of responsibility, or a full apology with acceptance of responsibility. Through his research, Robertson found that the nature of the apology was critical.

People who took on the role of the injured plaintiff and pedestrian in the hypothetical were more likely to lower their bottom-line price if they were offered a full apology. This shows that defendants can benefit from providing an apology where they accept responsibility for their wrongdoing. Robbennolt found that merely expressing sympathy without taking full responsibility for their actions does not benefit the defendants. A partial apology made plaintiffs feel like the defendant was not being sincere. In addition, plaintiffs who received a full apology:

  • perceived the defendant more positively
  • felt less anger and more sympathy toward the defendant
  • felt less need to punish the defendant and were more willing to forgive the defendant
  • judged the defendant’s settlement offer to be fairer

While people who took on the role of the injured plaintiff were likely to change their settlement demands, the same cannot be said for the attorney who were asked to step into the role of the plaintiff’s attorney. Apologies did not impact attorneys positively or negatively. If their clients received a full apology, with sympathy and acceptance of responsibility, the attorney was more likely to set a higher value for a fair settlement offer. If their client received no apology, attorneys did not change their settlement value in any significant way.

This shows that attorneys and clients have different responses to apologies. Since the plaintiff is the one injured and suffering, attorneys should make an attempt to understand their client’s point of view. Robbennolt provides an interesting case study on apologies and how they should be considered by attorneys and plaintiffs in an effort to better understand their settlement demands.

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