An apology or other sympathetic statements health-care officials make to their patients can’t be used as evidence of liability in medical-malpractice cases. Lawmakers enacted this years ago.

The Supreme Court of Ohio clarified yesterday that this information can’t be used in cases filed after the “medical apology statute” legislation took effect on Sept. 13, 2004, even if the treatment occurred before then.

“Doctors admitting that he did something wrong — that could be huge. That could be a large piece of evidence,” said Dan Abraham, attorney and part-owner of Colley Shroyer & Abraham, a Columbus association of trial attorneys that specializes in medical-malpractice cases.

But these emotionally charged conversations don’t belong in court testimony, argued Dr. William Wulf, medical director of Central Ohio Primary Care.

“Physicians are and should be sympathetic and empathetic. Fear of future legal action shouldn’t impede that,” Wulf said.

Yesterday’s Supreme Court decision was prompted by a medical-malpractice case that accused Dr. Randall Smith, a general surgeon from Portage County, of admitting his guilt to causing complications after removing Jeanette Johnson’s gall bladder.

The Johnsons first filed their original suit in 2002, months after Smith allegedly said, “I take full responsibility for this. Everything will be okay.”

The couple voluntarily forfeited the case in 2006, but re-filed a complaint in July 2007.

But because the case was filed three years after the legislation passed, the apology couldn’t be used in testimony, the Supreme Court ruled yesterday.

The clarification reversed a Court of Appeals ruling.

The Ohio State Medical Association plans to push for a bill to clarify the apology statute, the organization wrote in a news release yesterday.

“(The association) applauds the court’s opinion and views it as a common-sense application of a law that is clearly written with unambiguous intent.”

Sara Jerde is a fellow in Ohio University’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism Statehouse News Bureau.