Jeremy Laurance: Thankfully, an apology isn't an admission of liability

Health check

I was late for a meeting and as I jumped on to a crowded tube train the closing doors clouted me on the back of the head. Not for the first time; anyone who stands over 6ft runs a similar risk. But on this occasion my head was knocked into that of the woman next to me. Her hand flew up and, a few seconds later, she crumpled slowly to the floor.

"You've headbutted her. She needs to go to hospital," said another woman standing beyond her. I apologised, and tried to comfort the woman I had injured, hoping she would quickly recover.

She did not. She remained squatting in the corner of the carriage. Other passengers were becoming restive. At the station I escorted the woman on to the platform, and she was still clutching her forehead. There a kindly platform guard took care of her. I explained what had happened and apologised again. The woman said she would sit down, then asked for my business card "in case anything goes wrong." I found one, and went on to my meeting.

On the way I reflected on what had happened. It was clearly an accident but was I, nevertheless, culpable? I should not have jumped on to the train at the last moment. If she was seriously injured would I be liable?

It was not a hard blow but some people are more vulnerable than others. You do not expect to be head-butted on the tube; the shock alone would be pain enough. Did my apology amount to an admission of liability? I began to imagine lawyer's letters, a court case...

Is this how doctors feel after an accident? And is that why they can be so dilatory with apologies and explanations? If so, they are, as I was, ignorant of the law. The UK Compensation Act 2006 makes clear that an apology is not equivalent to an admission of liability. The law does not stand in the way, as many think, of ordinary expressions of regret.

Later that day I received an email from the woman. She had made it to her office and was sitting with an ice-pack on her head but was otherwise OK. "You hit your head too – I hope you are OK," she wrote. That was kind.

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