Last week, I conducted a mediation in which the Plaintiff was quite angry at what had happened to her. As I learned, she owns an auto body repair shop. Someone had brought a vehicle in for repair. However, that person abandoned the vehicle, never coming to pick it up. So, the plaintiff conducted a “lien sale” which she thought was according to the California statutes and followed the proper procedures. As no one purchased the vehicle at the lien sale, she bought it, fixed it up and put it up for sale. Lo and behold, the next thing she knew the California Department of Motor Vehicle Police swarmed in, seized the vehicle and arrested her for making false statements to an officer and/or illegal possession of the vehicle. She spent a day in jail, only to have the charges later dropped. As she had shown the DMV police all of the documents relating to the lien sale, she could not understand why she was arrested and subjected to such treatment. It seems that the vehicle actually belonged to a leasing company; the lessee or driver of the vehicle had gotten into an accident, made a claim on the insurance company, pocketed the proceeds and then abandoned the vehicle at Plaintiff’s auto repair shop under the guise that the vehicle was being brought in for repair.

So, the plaintiff sued the leasing company for conversion, on the theory that the leasing company had notified the California DMV that the vehicle was stolen and could be found at plaintiff’s shop. Plaintiff not only wanted the vehicle back but monetary damages for the emotional distress, the bail bond and the criminal attorneys’ fees incurred in the whole incident.

At the mediation, Plaintiff kept insisting that the suit was not about the money; it was about what had happened to her simply because the leasing company had reported the vehicle stolen. In response, I asked her if she wanted an apology. She did not respond.

An apology can be powerful in such situations. When used in the right manner, it can turn anger into forgiveness, turning the offended from one seeking “revenge” at all costs to one who is willing to forgive and forget, for a nominal sum.

Recently, The Harvard Program on Negotiation posted a blog about apologies, noting that to be effective, the apologizer must accept blame unequivocally (and not make excuses or try to put it on someone else) and must express regret for what has happened. Accordingly, a “true” apology consists of seven elements:

A sincere apology can include up to seven of the following components, according to Schweitzer and Wharton colleagues Jack Hershey and Eric Bradlow. They include: (1) a statement of apology (“I’m sorry”), (2) an expression of remorse (“I feel terrible about this!”), (3) an offer to help (“I’ll be sure to tell your boss that this is all my fault”), (4) self-blame (“It was careless of me to have made this mistake”), (5) a request for forgiveness (“Please accept my heartfelt apology”), (6) a promise regarding the future (“I won’t let this happen again”), and (7) an explanation (“I was so busy with another project that I let this fall through the cracks”). Although not all of these components are necessary for an apology to be effective, as a general rule, the more serious the violation, the more detailed the apology should be. ( Id.)

The most important aspect of an apology is sincerity: one absolutely must be sincere when apologizing. If the person to whom the apology is being made intuits that the apology is insincere, the apology will surely backfire, and if anything, make the situation worse.

So, while the plaintiff in my mediation was not interested in an apology, while at the same time, claiming that the lawsuit was “not about the money” (She claims she will give most of the monetary settlement or jury award to charity), the notion of an apology strikes me as a possible stepping stone to resolving this matter at some point in the future.

… Just something to think about!

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