TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (Legal Newsline) - The Florida Supreme Court held that an arbitration provision in a valid contract between a nursing home patient and the nursing home binds the patient's estate and heirs in a subsequent wrongful death case.

The Feb. 14 holding came in an answer to a certified question submitted to the state's high court by the Florida Fifth District Court of Appeal. Justice Barbara J. Pariente authored the opinion of the Court and the remaining six justices concurred.

Harry Lee Stewart died shortly after he was admitted to a nursing home, Avante at Leesburg, for rehabilitation from surgery in May 2006. Subsequently, personal representative of Stewart's Estate, Debra Laizure, filed a complaint in circuit court.

The complaint alleged violations of Stewart's statutory rights pursuant to the Florida Nursing Home Residents' Rights Act as well as an alternative claim for wrongful death based on negligence.

The defendants, Avante at Leesburg and related business entities, filed a motion to compel arbitration based on the arbitration agreement Stewart signed on May 15, the day after he was admitted to AVL.

"Laizure opposed arbitration, contending that the arbitration agreement was procedurally and substantively unconscionable and that the wrongful death claims were not arbitrable," the opinion states.

"The trial court found that the arbitration agreement was valid, that the claims brought by Laizure were arbitrable issues, and that the beneficiaries of the estate were intended third-party beneficiaries of the agreement."

The state Fifth District affirmed the trial court.

The court focused primarily on Laizure's argument that the arbitration agreement did not, and could not, encompass a wrongful death claim because the claim belonged to the estate and the heirs.

The Fifth District noted that a conclusion that a wrongful death claim falls within the scope of an arbitration agreement was supported by a similar Fourth District case where a nursing home arbitration agreement was enforced in a wrongful death action.

Although it rejected Laizure's argument, the Fifth District, finding the question to be "of great public importance," certified this question to the Supreme Court:

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?

"This case requires us to examine the nature of wrongful death actions under Florida law and is not about the quality of care provided by nursing homes or other related policy issues," Pariente wrote. "The question presented is whether an arbitration provision in an otherwise valid contract binds the signing party's estate and heirs in a subsequent wrongful death case ... we hold that it does.

"Our decision flows from the nature of wrongful death actions in Florida, which we conclude is derivative for purposes of the issue presented in this case.

"Because the signing party's estate and heirs are bound by defenses that could be raised in a personal injury suit brought by the decedent, as well as by releases signed by the decedent, it would be anomalous to conclude that they are not also bound by a choice of forum agreement signed by the decedent in a wrongful death action arising out of the treatment and care of the decedent.

"Accordingly, we answer the certified question in the affirmative and approve the Fifth District's decision."

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