The Florida Supreme Court recently made it more difficult for the families of wrongful death victims to have their cases heard in court. In February, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that a mandatory arbitration agreement signed by an elderly nursing home patient extended to, and was binding on, his estate and heirs. Many states refuse to enforce binding arbitration clauses in nursing home contracts, as they can be unconscionably biased in favor of the nursing home, but the justices refused to make such a declaration in this case.
Henry Lee Stewart was a patient in a nursing home operated by Avante at Leesburg, Inc. Upon admission, Stewart signed an agreement with Avante that provided any disputes arising from his care would be subject to binding arbitration. Stewart died a few days later and his family believed the nursing home’s negligence was at fault. The executor of Stewart’s estate, sued Avante in Florida circuit court rather than seek arbitration under the agreement Stewart previously signed.
At Avante’s request, the trial court issued an order compelling Laizure to go through binding arbitration. The Fifth District Court of Appeal affirmed the circuit court’s decision. However, since the question of whether a nursing home arbitration agreement covers a wrongful death lawsuit had never been addressed before in the state courts, the court of appeal asked the Supreme Court to weigh in on the matter.
As noted above, the Supreme Court unanimously agreed with the two lower courts that the binding arbitration clause did apply to Laizure’s wrongful death lawsuit on behalf of Stewart’s estate.
Signing Away the Rights of Heirs and Family Members
Laizure argued that wrongful death lawsuits did not fall within the scope of the arbitration agreement that Stewart signed. The Supreme Court disagreed. Not only did the written terms of the agreement cover any actions arising from the nursing home’s potential negligence, it also provided that its terms covered any heirs or representatives of the parties, such as the executor of Stewart’s estate.
But Laizure maintained the arbitration agreement still could not apply to a wrongful death lawsuit because such a case, by definition, can only be brought by heirs or an estate. In other words, it’s an independent cause of action under state law. There are also separate laws dealing with the rights of nursing home patients. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court said these were not independent causes at all, but rather derivative of any tort suffered by the original victim. There could be no wrongful death lawsuit if Stewart had not been allegedly injured by the nursing home’s negligence. And since Stewart signed away his right to sue in court while he was alive, the Supreme Court reasoned there was no reason not to extend that waiver to his estate.
Don’t Wait Until It’s Too Late
The Supreme Court did not address the merits of the arbitration agreement itself. The lower courts could still find the terms of the agreement unconscionable and therefore unenforceable under state law. But the Supreme Court’s decision should put all families of nursing home patients on alert.
Arbitration agreements are commonplace in business-to-business contracts where both sides have the benefit of legal representation. An elderly, possibly dying nursing home patient is not in a similar position. And if a negligence or wrongful death situation does arise, arbitration puts the nursing home at a tactical advantage by limiting the procedural rights of plaintiffs, such as the ability to conduct discovery. This is one reason nursing homes are eager to enforce such provisions against their patients. That’s why, if you or a loved one has been the victim of improper care, it’s important you speak with an experienced nursing home abuse attorney immediately.