A jury in Madison County recently found that a nursing home patient who died had the capacity to understand the arbitration agreement in the contract that she signed in 2011.
Nora Chapple died at the age of 80 in the Kenwood Health and Rehabilitation Center in Richmond, where she had lived on two occasions since 2011. After Chapple's death, her family sued the nursing home for wrongful death, but attorneys representing Extendicare, the company that ran the Kenwood facility during that time, asked the circuit court judge to dismiss the lawsuit because Chapple's contract required mediation, then arbitration of disputes. Chapple's family charged that no one else was present when Chapple signed the contract and that she lacked the necessary mental capacity to understand the terms.
During the trial, the family claimed that both times Chapple was admitted to Kenwood, she was heavily medicated due to a broken hip and severe depression. Jurors heard the testimony of Chapple's physician of 11 years, medical experts, and the administrator who was on hand when Chapple signed the paperwork for admission. After two hours of deliberation, the jury found in favor of the nursing home's argument that Chapple had capacity to sign the agreement. Now the question remains whether the decision will be appealed to a higher court.
This outcome is unsettling to anyone who has had to put a loved one in a nursing home. Often it is a time of emotional upheaval, and those who sign the contracts are not reading the tiny print, or even thinking beyond giving their loved one immediate care. Yet at the same time, the outcome is not surprising, as arbitration clauses in a variety of contracts have become increasingly popular. Many nursing homes have inserted arbitration clauses into their contracts, which require families to forgo filing a lawsuit in court and instead take their case to arbitration. Arbitration is often less expensive than litigation, but it also means that cases get decided by someone who is not a judge, and whose arbitration company may be biased toward the nursing home, its source of employment. Arbitration decisions are also very difficult to appeal to state court.
Over the years, the United States Supreme Court has been very clear that the Federal Arbitration Act supercedes state laws prohibiting arbitration clauses. However, some state courts have managed to find that arbitration clauses are void due to unconscionability: the agreements with these clauses were made with such a severe imbalance of power between the parties, no one would find the clause reasonable. Certainly if stressed and tired families looking for a home for their loved ones are in no position to bargain for reasonable contract terms, vulnerable patients would not be, either. Hopefully the next few years will bring more flexibility in dealing with arbitration clauses. In the meantime, if you or your loved one was injured in a nursing home, contact a Kentucky personal injury attorney right away to learn your options.
Miller & Falkner is a plaintiffs law firm serving residents of Kentucky and Indiana. Located in Louisville, Kentucky, the firm provides representation in the areas of personal injury and employment law. Contact us today for a free consultation.