Arbitration Agreements, the People Signing Them, and Their Impact on Your Massachusetts Nursing Home Negligence Case

When a loved one has been hurt, or has died, while in the care of a nursing home, it is a stressful time, and you very likely have a lot on your mind. Worrying about whether or not that arbitration agreement document you or your sibling signed when your mom or dad was admitted to the nursing home is valid is probably not at the top of your list of immediate concerns. However, it can make all of the difference when it comes to getting compensation for the nursing home’s negligence. Whether it is overcoming an arbitration agreement or defeating some other challenge in your negligence or wrongful death action, contact an experienced Massachusetts nursing home negligence attorney about your options in your case.

Last summer, the Georgia Court of Appeals ruled in a case in which a daughter sought to sue her late mother’s nursing home for negligence. In that case, a daughter named Carol signed several papers on behalf of her mother when the mother was first admitted to the nursing home in 2013. Among those documents was an agreement stating that all disputes between the resident and the home would be resolved through arbitration instead of litigation. Carol did not have authority under any legal documents to sign on behalf of her mother. Her mother was not present when Carol signed, and the daughter did not discuss the document with the mother before the signature was made.

In early 2015, the mother died. A few months later, another daughter, Jeannette, who was also the administrator of the mother’s probate estate, sued the nursing home for negligence and wrongful death. The nursing home tried to invoke the arbitration agreement and get the judge to compel arbitration, but the court refused. The appeals court upheld that decision, concluding that there was no proof that Carol had any kind of authority to sign binding documents on behalf of her mother, and the absence of the mother’s signature, or the signature of someone legally empowered to act on her behalf, made the agreement unenforceable.

While that recent case took place in the Georgia courts, the issues within it are important ones for anyone with loved ones in nursing homes. It is also something that the Massachusetts courts addressed just a few years ago. In 2006, 96-year-old Elizabeth was preparing to enter a nursing home in South Dartmouth. Elizabeth’s son, Scott, signed all of the admission paperwork with the home. Like the daughter in the Georgia case, Scott did not have any legal authority to act on behalf of his mother. He was not his mother’s guardian, her conservator, or her agent under a power of attorney. He was only the agent named in Elizabeth’s health care proxy document and the administrator of her estate. None of those things gave Scott the power to sign binding documents on Elizabeth’s behalf.

After admission, Elizabeth’s 97-year-old roommate strangled her to death. Scott subsequently sued the nursing home for wrongful death. The nursing home in South Dartmouth, like the one in Georgia, sought to enforce the arbitration agreement. Like the Georgia Court of Appeals, the Appeals Court of Massachusetts concluded in a 2014 opinion that the agreement was unenforceable. Scott did not have the legal power to agree, on behalf of his mother, to arbitrate disputes with the nursing home and waive the right to sue in court. That meant that the wrongful death case was allowed to go forward in court.

One key thing that you can take away from these cases is that, within the stack of papers the nursing home wants signed in order to complete the admission process, there may be documents that call for the forfeiture of certain rights like suing in court. Make sure you know what you’re signing before you sign and consult counsel before you waive valuable legal rights.

If you have a loved one who has suffered harm while residing in a nursing home, you may have various legal options depending on the facts of the case. For helpful answers and reliable representation in legal actions, reach out to experienced Plymouth County nursing home negligence lawyer Michael S. Mehrmann. Our team has been working for many years to help families from across Plymouth County, including in Kingston, Plymouth, Marshfield, Hanson, Carver, Pembroke, and Duxbury, who have been affected by nursing home negligence. To find out more about how we can assist you, call (781) 585-3911 or contact us online.