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Arbitration Clauses Can Keep Nursing Home Abuse Cases Out of Court

Many elderly persons in Tennessee are victims of nursing home abuse or neglect. In some cases, negligence on the part of nursing home personnel may contribute to a patient’s injury or death. That is why if you are responsible for making an elderly relative’s health care decisions, you need to be aware of the consequences of certain acts that may affect your ability to seek legal redress against a nursing home.

Court Enforces Arbitration Clause Signed by Daughter

Nursing homes often ask residents to sign “alternative dispute resolution” contracts. These agreements state in the event of any claim against the nursing home, the patient or her family must submit to binding arbitration. While there is nothing wrong with arbitration per se, it often does not afford a victim the same degree of procedural protections as traditional litigation. For example, arbitration cases are decided without a jury. Arbitration is also a private process, which can protect a nursing home from public exposure of any wrongdoing.

Once a person, or their agent, signs an arbitration agreement, it can be difficult to subsequently assert their rights in court. The Tennessee Court of Appeals recently weighed in on such a case. In 2010, an elderly woman entered a nursing home in Sumner County. The woman’s attending physician previously determined she lacked the “capacity/competency to make health care decisions for herself.” Two years earlier, the woman signed a health care power of attorney designating her daughter to make health care decisions for her.

Despite her physician’s determination, the woman entered the nursing home voluntarily and, according to her daughter, with “full mental capacity.” The daughter nevertheless signed all of the admission forms pursuant to her mother’s power of attorney. This included a standalone arbitration agreement. Although the agreement itself said it was “optional,” the daughter later said a nursing home employee told her she had to sign the form before her mother could be admitted.

The woman died about a year later. The daughter subsequently sued the nursing home, alleging its malpractice and negligence caused her mother’s death. The nursing home moved to enforce the arbitration clause. A trial court agreed and dismissed the daughter’s lawsuit.

The Court of Appeals affirmed. The appeals court agreed with the trial court’s finding the deceased “lacked capacity to make decisions” at the time of her admission. It therefore fell to the daughter, acting as her mother’s agent, who signed the arbitration agreement. The daughter argued her power of attorney was limited to “health care decisions” only, but the Court of Appeals said it would not draw a distinction between “health care” and “legal” decisions in the context of nursing home admissions. “Although agreeing to arbitrate claims was not required for admission,” the appeals court observed, “the [arbitration] agreement was part of the admission process.”

Reach Out to Our Attorneys Today

If you or a loved one has been affected by nursing home neglect or abuse, it is important to understand how any arbitration agreements or other admission forms may affect your legal rights under Tennessee law. An experienced Tennessee nursing home accident attorney can help you investigate any potential claim. Contact the offices of Fox, Farley, Willis & Burnette, Attorneys at Law, in Clinton or Knoxville today to speak with someone right away.

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