Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Judge Williamson of Monroe County Keeps Nursing Home Personal Injury Case in Court in Light of 'Unconsionable' Arbitration Clause




In the Monroe County Court of Common Pleas case of Santiago v. Whitestone Health Care Group, LLC, No. 5281 Civil 2015 (C.P. Monroe Co. Williamson, J.), Judge David J. Williamson of the Monroe County Court of Common Pleas addressed various issues surrounding an arbitration agreement in a lawsuit between a decedent’s family and a nursing home facility.  

The central issue before the court is whether the trial court lacked jurisdiction over the matter due to an arbitration agreement entered into by the parties when the decedent moved into the nursing home.  The court denied the Defendant’s Preliminary Objections and rejected the argument that the trial court lacked jurisdiction.  

Judge David J. Williamson
Monroe County
In so ruling, Judge Williamson noted that arbitration clauses in contracts are not applicable to wrongful death actions. 

As such, the court found that the Defendants failed to show that either the patient/decedent signed the arbitration agreement or that an agency relationship existed between the patient/decedent and the person who signed the arbitration agreement, who was the decedent’s daughter.  

Judge Williamson stated that there can be no “knowing waiver” of a right to a jury trial by a patient who is unable to review and sign such a document such as the decedent herein who presumably was not competent to sign the document.  

Rather, for an agent to sign and bind the patient, the agent must have the authority to do so by righting or by acts or by conduct clearly implying an agency relationship.  Finding that the Defendant’s failed to present any such evidence that the daughter was authorized to bind her mother to the arbitration agreement and the resulting waiving of a right to a jury trial, the court found that the Defendants failed to meet their burden of proof on the issue of an agency relationship.  

Judge Williamson reiterated that the arbitration agreement cannot apply to the wrongful death claim and also ruled that the survival claim should not be severed.  

The court therefore found that the Defendants were barred from enforcing the arbitration agreement given that the matter before the court involved both wrongful death and survival claims.   See Op. at 3-4 citing Taylor v. Extendicare Health Facilities, Inc., 1313 A.3d 317 (Pa. Super. 2015), allocator granted, 122 A.3d 1036 (Pa. 2015).  

Judge Williamson reasoned that the Pennsylvania courts have ruled that a wrongful death action, under Pennsylvania statutory law, is a matter in which the trial court maintains jurisdiction even in the face of a valid binding arbitration agreement because a wrongful death claim accrues after the decedent’s death with beneficiaries who are not a party to arbitration agreement.   Here, Judge Williamson stated that even if the Defendants argue that the decedent’s daughter is a beneficiary who signed the arbitration agreement, the daughter was not a party to the arbitration agreement as she allegedly signed on behalf of the patient/decedent.  

Judge Williamson also noted that Pennsylvania cases have upheld a finding that a survival action should not be severed from a wrongful death action for purposes of arbitrating the survival action alone.   Accordingly, the court found that the arbitration agreement had no binding effect in this case on either the wrongful death or the survival action.

Lastly, the court found that the arbitration agreement before it was unconscionable in that it was unreasonably favorable to the drafter of the agreement.  

For these reasons, the court overruled the Defendant’s Preliminary Objections and allowed the case to remain within the Monroe County Court of Common Pleas as opposed to arbitration.  

 

Anyone desiring a copy of this decision may contact me at dancummins@comcast.net.  I send thanks to Attorney David A. Miller, Esquire of the Frackville, Pennsylvania office of Michael J. O’Connor and Associates, LLC for bringing this case to my attention.  
 
 
 

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