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Walker v. Collyer – Non-Signatory Can’t be Forced to Arbitrate, Mass. Court Rules

Usually when we come across the issue of nursing home arbitration agreements, we are looking at it from the perspective of the patient and his representatives attempting to avoid an arbitrator and instead take the case to court.
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The reason is because most of these forced nursing home arbitration clauses contain lots of fine print, and it essentially minimizes the facility’s risk of being held responsible for negligent action, which is typically better suited to determination by a judge and/or jury. Most people don’t realize these agreements often amount to forfeiture of many of the rights that would otherwise be afforded. Boston nursing home negligence lawyers have strategies for successfully striking down these agreements, including arguing that the agreement is unconscionable (inherently unfair) or that the party who signed it on behalf of the patient wasn’t legally authorized to do so.

The recent case of Walker v. Collyer, before the Massachusetts Court of Appeals, was different in that it involved an attending physician at a nursing home attempting to avoid being compelled to participate in arbitration with the widow of a deceased patient, per the terms of an agreement signed by the patient and the facility.

Likely, the reason has to do with the fact that were this case to go to court, it would be considered a medical malpractice action. Unlike matters of ordinary negligence, medical malpractice lawsuits must fit a host of strict criteria, which the plaintiff would likely not otherwise have to meet if the case went before an arbitrator.

According to court records, the patient was only in the nursing home and rehabilitation center for a brief time, following his transfer from another facility after undergoing hip replacement surgery. Upon his being admitted to the facility, the patient signed a voluntary agreement for arbitration, which indicated any disputes to arise from quality of care would be handled by an arbitrator, rather than taken to court. A representative from the facility also signed it.

However, the defendant doctor never signed it and, according to him, he had no knowledge of it. While the agreement did indicate it was binding to all “employees, parents, affiliates, subsidiary companies, owners, officers, directors, successors, assigns, agents and insurers,” the doctor argued he should not be included in this grouping.

The doctor, an attending physician at the facility, indicated he was not an employee. In fact, his contract with the facility indicated he was a contractor.

He served as the attending physician to the patient during his stay, and he signed his discharge papers.

Three days later, the patient died as a result of blood clots traveling into his lungs.

The doctor contended he should not be bound by an arbitration agreement that he knew nothing about, despite the company’s indication in its documents that as an “affiliate,” he might be included.

The arbitrator disagreed with him and so too did a judge with the Massachusetts Superior Court. However, justices with the Massachusetts Court of Appeals reversed, citing numerous instances in federal cases for precedent.

Previous state decisions, such as that in Johnson v. KIindred Healthcare, Inc., and Licata v. GGNSC Malden Dexter LLC, both decided earlier this year, touched on whether a signatory to an arbitration agreement could compel a non-signatory to arbitrate under state law. However, those rulings did not lay out the full scope of possibilities.

Here, the court found that while the patient and the facility “clearly and unmistakably” entered into a valid arbitration agreement, there was not enough evidence to prove the doctor should be bound by that agreement, of which he was not aware and never signed.

If you are injured by nursing home negligence Massachusetts, call the Law Offices of Jeffrey S. Glassman for a free and confidential appointment — 1-888-367-2900.

Additional Resources:
Walker v. Collyer, May 23, 2014, Massachusetts Court of Appeals
More Blog Entries:
Most Nursing Home Injuries Are Preventable, April 1, 2014, Boston Nursing Home Abuse Lawyer Blog