The Florida Supreme Court has issued an opinion in a nursing home negligence lawsuit, tossing an arbitration agreement and the reasoning by the 3rd DCA that it was enforceable because the son signed on behalf of his father who lacked mental capacity. The court in Mendez v. Hampton Court Nursing Ctr. said the father’s mental capacity here did not matter because it didn’t change the son’s lack of legal standing to sign on his father’s behalf.
As we’ve seen in so many of these cases, the son signed a nursing home admission agreement – which included an arbitration provision – for his father when he was first admitted to the Miami-area facility back in 2009. But the son didn’t have legal power of attorney. The father likely couldn’t have legally signed that paperwork either because he lacked the mental capacity to do so, but that’s beside the point here. Later when a dispute arose and plaintiff alleged his father’s care had been negligent, the nursing home sought to enforce that arbitration agreement.
It was argued by defendant nursing home that the father’s lack of mental capacity meant the son was acting as his father’s representative. The trial court agreed with the nursing home and so too did the Third District Court of Appeals. But the state supreme court, in a 5-2 decision, reversed. The father’s mental state didn’t change the son’s legal power or somehow make the contract valid. Had the nursing home wanted to ensure the correct party was signing the document, they could have taken the matter to court, asked for the father to be declared mentally incompetent, had the court establish a legal representative and then asked that person to sign.
This decision is significant in that if nursing homes are required to do that for each and every patient who lacks the personal mental capacity to sign admission paperwork, we may be seeing far fewer arbitration agreements – or at least fewer that are enforceable.
According to court records, about two years after the father was admitted to the nursing home, he suffered a serious eye infection that ultimately necessitated the removal of his left eye.The son filed a nursing home negligence lawsuit on his father’s behalf, alleging negligence. However, before both parties could get to the facts of the case, the nursing home sought to compel arbitration, per the agreement signed by the son.
Although the lower court granted this motion and the appellate court affirmed, the Florida Supreme Court in its reversal reasoned the court would never enforce a nursing home admission agreement if the nursing home obtained a resident’s a signature under threat or duress. By the same token, the court said, it wouldn’t enforce an agreement where the contract lacked the resident’s agreement altogether. The fact that the father was incapacitated did not suddenly or automatically grant his son the legal authority to sign contracts on his behalf.
This reasoning is in line with the decisions of all the other district courts of appeal that have faced similar questions. The 3rd DCA had been the only one in conflict.
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Mendez v. Hampton Court Nursing Ctr. , Sept. 22, 2016, Florida Supreme Court
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Report: Nursing Home Abuse Plaintiffs Fight to Overcome Injustice Behind Closed Doors, Sept. 29, 2016, Fort Lauderdale Nursing Home Abuse Lawyer Blog