In a case of first impression, the Florida Fifth District Court of Appeal issued an October 1 opinion holding that an estate’s wrongful death claim against a nursing facility was subject to the arbitration agreement entered into by the resident when he was admitted into the facility. (Laizure v. Avante at Leesburg, Inc.). The estate objected to submitting its wrongful death claim to arbitration because a wrongful death claim belongs only to the estate and the resident’s survivors. Because the claim is independent and the resident would have had no right to bring it, the estate argued that the resident did not have the authority to bind it and his heirs when he signed the arbitration agreement.
The appellate court, however, affirmed the trial court order that compelled arbitration. Relying on principles already found in Florida case law and the language of the arbitration agreement, the court reasoned that the estate’s wrongful death claim, based on allegations of negligent care, fell “squarely within the language of the arbitration agreement.” The court certified a question of great public importance to the Florida Supreme Court, an important step in permitting supreme court review of its decision.
Whether a wrongful death claim is subject to arbitration is a question that is being answered differently in various state courts. In Texas, Mississippi, Alabama and Michigan, courts have come to the same conclusion as the Florida court and ordered arbitration for wrongful death claims. In Washington and Missouri, however, courts have found that because a wrongful death claim is independent from any claim a resident could have brought, it is not subject to an arbitration agreement signed by the resident. California cases have gone both ways. There seem to be no published case law directly on the issue from Pennsylvania or New Jersey.
Because nearly every claim for negligent medical and nursing care that resulted in a death is accompanied by a claim for wrongful death, this is not an issue that will go away any time soon. Although, for now, the law is settled in Florida, the fifth district opinion will not bind any of Florida’s other courts of appeal—and with the certified question, the opinion can be reviewed by the Florida Supreme Court. It will be important to watch what courts in every jurisdiction do with the question of the arbitrability of a wrongful death claim as such a claim in a death case may be the key to open courthouse doors to plaintiffs who would otherwise be subject to valid agreements to arbitrate.
Author Amy Miles