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Tennessee Court of Appeals Holds that Wrongful Death Litigant Was Not Bound by Arbitration Agreement Proffered by Nursing Home

For several years now, there has been a concerted effort to limit the legal rights of those who might seek to file a Knoxville nursing home abuse lawsuit. Typically, a representative of the nursing home begins this process by asking the patient or someone in his or her family to sign “routine paperwork” that includes an agreement to arbitrate, rather than litigate, any potential claims that may arise during the patient’s care.

The patient or family member often has no idea that, by signing these admission papers, he or she is giving up the right to have a future personal injury or wrongful death case decided by a judge or jury. Instead, if a claim arises, the case will proceed in front of an arbitrator.

Arbitrators tend to be much more conservative in their awards – if they even agree that there was negligent or wrongful conduct on behalf of the nursing home or its employees – thus potentially saving the potential defendant and its insurance company a considerable amount of money in some cases. Fortunately, not every such “agreement” to arbitration is upheld in court.

Facts of the Case

The plaintiff in a recent case arising in the Circuit Court for Gibson County was the daughter of a woman who allegedly died as a result of the negligence of the defendant nursing home. After the plaintiff filed her wrongful death action against the defendant, the defendant sought to compel arbitration of the plaintiff’s claim. In its motion to compel, the defendant relied upon paperwork that the plaintiff had signed when the decedent had been admitted to the defendant’s care. According to the plaintiff, the decedent had been mentally incompetent at the time of her admission, and the decedent had not given the plaintiff power of attorney to act on her behalf.

The trial court denied the defendant’s motion to compel arbitration. The defendant appealed.

The Appellate Tribunal’s Decision

The Court of Appeals of Tennessee at Jackson affirmed the circuit court’s denial of the defendant’s motion to compel arbitration. The court began its analysis by explaining that its review of a lower court’s ruling on a motion to compel arbitration was de novo on the record with a presumption of correctness. Only if the evidence preponderated against the lower court’s ruling would its decision be disturbed on appeal. For evidence to “preponderate” in such a situation, the evidence would have to support a different finding of fact with greater convincing effect.

The defendant argued that the enforceability of the arbitration agreement should have been decided by an arbitrator rather than by the court and that, in any event, the record supported a finding that the plaintiff had either actual or apparent authority to sign the agreement to arbitrate on behalf of the decedent. The appellate court disagreed with these contentions, concluding that the plaintiff had neither actual nor apparent authority to sign the arbitration agreement. Accordingly, the appeals tribunal held that the plaintiff’s case could proceed in a court of law rather than in front of an arbitrator.

For Advice About a Nursing Home Abuse Case

The decision to place a loved one in a nursing home or assisted living center is always a difficult one. Such a decision requires a patient’s family to place a great deal of trust in those who own the nursing facility, as well as those who work directly with the patients. When that trust is broken, it can leave a family devastated and looking for answers to a great many questions. To talk to an attorney about pursing litigation against a nursing facility whose negligence or abuse you believe may have led to a loved one’s injury or wrongful death, call the Hartsoe Law Firm today at 865-524-5657.

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