Ask the Expert – May 2017

Ask the Expert

By Clifton Smoot, The Veen Firm, PC

May 8, 2017

"I’m Sorry," Legally Speaking

A fall, crash, collapse, or similar incident happens, catastrophically injuring someone. You are involved in the incident, and feel terrible about what occurred. Would you hesitate to say, "I’m sorry," in fear that it would create legal problems for you? Is that a reasonable concern?

Many people think that saying "I’m sorry" is the same as admitting fault. In reality, apologies have many meanings. The speaker may intend to communicate something neutral like, "I’m sorry this happened to you," or "I’m sorry that I was involved." On the other hand, the speaker may intend to communicate, "I’m sorry, because it was my fault," which conveys self-criticism and regret.

Due to this wide range of meanings, "I’m sorry" has little legal effect in civil court proceedings. Most judges would not allow your statement of "I’m sorry" to be used against you. Section 1160 of the California Evidence Code states that "expressing sympathy or a general sense of benevolence" cannot be later used against someone in court as a way to prove that they were legally responsible for an incident. Legislators wanted to encourage people to say "I’m sorry" because it is neutral and sympathetic, and may even resolve some conflicts. Bottom line: you should feel free to say, "I’m sorry," or express sympathy, and not worry about those words coming back to bite you.

On the other hand, "I’m sorry" are not magic words. If someone apologizes for an incident, and at the same time admits fault, then that statement can be used against the person in court. For instance, a statement like "I’m sorry that I was texting and driving," or "Sorry, I should’ve reinforced that support column," can (and should) be used against the speaker. Saying "I’m sorry" does not shield anyone from legal responsibility if they did something wrong that injured another.