Upon admission to a nursing home a patient signed an arbitration agreement. The patient died. The estate of the nursing home patient sued the nursing home for deprivation or infringement of the patient's statutory nursing home residents' rights pursuant to the Florida Nursing Home Residents' Rights Act (NHRRA) or, in the alternative, wrongful death. The nursing home filed a motion to compel arbitration pursuant to the arbitration agreement. The trial court granted the motion finding that the arbitration agreement was valid, that the claims were arbitrable issues, and that the beneficiaries of the estate were intended third-party beneficiaries of the agreement. The estate appealed.
The Court of Appeal affirmed. The court also certified a question to be of great public importance. Does the execution of a nursing home arbitration agreement by a party with the capacity to contract bind the patient’s estate and statutory heirs in a subsequent wrongful death action arising from an alleged tort within the scope of an otherwise valid arbitration agreement?
The Supreme Court of Florida affirmed the lower courts’ opinions and answered the certified question in the affirmative. The court held that the arbitration agreement covered wrongful death claims as it expressly encompassed claims arising out of or relating to the patient's stay at the nursing home, including negligence and malpractice, and was expressly binding upon and included claims brought by the patient's heirs.
The court held that the nursing home patient’s estate and statutory heirs were bound by the arbitration agreement. The court reasoned that under Florida law a wrongful death cause of action is derivative. Therefore, an estate and heirs stand in the shoes of the decedent for purposes of whether the defendant is liable and are bound by the decedent's actions and contracts with respect to defenses and releases. Applying that reasoning to the facts of this case, the court concluded that the estate and statutory heirs were bound by the arbitration agreement signed by the patient to the same extent that the patient would have been bound for purposes of wrongful death claims, and thus, they were required to arbitrate their wrongful death claims under the arbitration agreement. The court noted that holding otherwise in the nursing home context would give the personal representative of an estate the strategic choice under the NHRRA to elect to pursue a wrongful death claim, rather than a survivor action on behalf of the decedent, simply to avoid arbitration that was agreed to by the decedent.
The court also noted that when the NHRRA does not apply, the personal injury cause of action abates upon the death of the injured party pursuant to the Wrongful Death Act, and the wrongful death cause of action becomes the only avenue for recovery.
See: Laizure v. Avante at Leesburg, Inc., 2013 WL 535417 (Fla., February 14, 2013) (not designated for publication).