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Federal District Court in Tennessee Denies Nursing Home’s Motion to Arbitrate, Citing Physician’s Illegible Dating of Signature

More and more frequently, health care providers such as hospitals and nursing homes are seeking to prevent those whom they injure via negligence, abuse, and malpractice from having their day in court. They often do this in a very surreptitious way, such that many litigants are not even aware that they may have jeopardized their right to a trial by jury until it is too late.

It happens under the guise of “signing some papers” during admission into a Knoxville nursing home, convalescent center, hospital, or other medical center. The patient or his or her family member often has no idea of the ramifications of signing the pile of complex documents that are shoved in front of them during what is probably one of the most difficult days of their life.

Fortunately, not all such attempts to thwart the legal process are successful. In some cases, the court system refuses to grant the health care provider’s request to send the case to an arbitrator rather than have it rightfully proceed through the litigation process.

Facts of the Case

In a recently released opinion from a federal district court, the plaintiff was the mother of a man who allegedly died due to the mistreatment of the defendants, a nursing and rehabilitation facility and others. According to the plaintiff, she took the decedent to the defendant facility in late 2017. The decedent apparently resided there for about a year and a half. After being transferred to a hospital and then to another health care center, the decedent died in August 2019. According to the plaintiff, the decedent suffered physical injuries (including pressure sores), pain and suffering, and mental anguish while in the defendant facility’s care; the plaintiff further averred that the decedent’s injuries were the proximate result of the defendant’s negligence in caring for the decedent.

The plaintiff’s lawsuit included claims for “survival and wrongful death” on behalf of herself and other wrongful death beneficiaries. She sought compensation pursuant to the Tennessee Healthcare Liability Act, codified at Tennessee Code Annotated §§ 29-26-101, et seq and/or the provisions of Tennessee negligence law. The facility filed a motion to compel arbitration of the plaintiff’s claims; it also sought a stay of the case pending resolution of said arbitration.

The Court’s Decision

The United States District Court for the Western District of Tennessee, Western Division, denied the facility’s motion to compel arbitration. According to the court, the plaintiff did not have the legal authority to enter into the agreement to arbitrate on behalf of the decedent, nor could the facility bind the decedent to the agreement as a third-party beneficiary of the contract. Likewise, the court found that the plaintiff did not enter into an agreement to arbitrate in her personal capacity.

In so holding, the court noted that, under the Tennessee Heath Care Decisions Act, signing an agreement to arbitrate was a heath care decision. Under T.C.A. § 68-11-1806, a surrogate could only make such a decision on a patient’s behalf if the patient had been determined by a designated physician to lack capacity. Here, the decedent’s doctor did make such a decision, but the date of his signature was illegible. Because the court was not convinced that the doctor signed the surrogate form on a date prior to the plaintiff’s signing of the agreement to arbitrate, it found that the facility had failed to meet its burden of showing that the plaintiff had the authority to form a contract on the decedent’s behalf.

Insomuch as the plaintiff signed the relevant document only on the decedent’s behalf, the court also opined that no agreement to arbitrate had been formed on behalf of the plaintiff with regard to her individual claims.

Schedule a Consultation About a Nursing Home Abuse Case

If you believe that you or a loved one may have a nursing home abuse claim against a health care facility in the Knoxville area, please call the Hartsoe Law Firm at 865-524-5657 and ask for an appointment to come in and discuss your situation. We handle cases throughout east Tennessee, including Maryville, Alcoa, Farragut, Seymour, Powell, Karns, Oak Ridge, Clinton, and the surrounding area.

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