A three-judge panel recently ruled in the wrongful death case of Smoyer v. Care One in the Pennsylvania Superior Court. Plaintiff Frank Moyer brought a civil action against the parties who managed the nursing home where his now deceased mother lived. Named defendants included Care One, 890 Weatherwood Lane Operating Co., and Healthbridge Management.
A Westmoreland County trial court had previously denied the defendant's request that the matter be subject to arbitration based on clauses that were contained in the “consent to treat” agreement that the deceased had signed upon admittance to the facility. The Superior Court affirmed the ruling that arbitration was not required.
Consent to Treat
The standardized consent to treat document states that any “controversy or claim arising out of consent to treatment” brought by parties is required to be handled through arbitration. Arbitration is favored as a means of avoiding more costly litigation. The defense claimed that the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) should be considered and cited that it was strongly in favor of arbitration.
The trial court found that this agreement was inapplicable to this case, which asserted that the defendant demonstrated negligence—not a failure to obtain consent. Judge Christian Scherer acknowledged the defense's interpretation of the FAA; however, that the courts are only to insist on arbitration when the issues related to matters of consent.
Question of Enforceability
The counsel for the plaintiff explained they felt the arbitration requirement was not enforceable in this action for the following reasons:
- For “lack of consideration”
- The consent form related solely to matters concerning authorization to treat
- That the defense's assertion of applicability would make the contract unacceptable by linking it to unrelated types of concerns
Superior Court's Task
- Did the lower court overlook that the Federal Arbitration Act applied in this matter?
- Whether this action was truly “within the scope” of the agreement?
- The agreement made reference to another contract known as the “Comprehensive Admission Agreement”, which the deceased did not sign. Does the absence of this second agreement have any effect on the provisions of the agreement that was signed?
The traditional process of litigation is often time-consuming and expensive. For this reason, some long-term care providers require that an agreement be entered mandating arbitration in the event of a dispute. This is basically a waiver of rights to a trial. Arbitration typically is mediated by a panel that hears the concerns of both parties.
The parties will usually still retain legal counsel; however, the process is far less formal than a trial and requires significantly less preparation. Those who oppose such contracts often believe that they unfairly restrict the rights of an injured party to seek fair retribution.
Arbitration agreements are sometimes found in contracts involving credit cards, banking, and employment. In a recent ruling by the Kentucky Supreme Court, they determined that these agreements must have clear and concise statements that relate to waiving the right to trial by judge or jury in accordance with the Kentucky Constitution. Meanwhile, the U.S. Supreme Court has affirmed that agreements under the FAA are “valid, irrevocable and enforceable”.