Many elderly Georgia residents are victims of nursing home abuse and neglect. In order to avoid potential personal injury and wrongful death lawsuits from injured patients, many nursing homes insist their residents sign “alternative dispute resolution” (ADR) agreements that require any negligence or malpractice claims be submitted to binding arbitration. While arbitration can be beneficial in certain cases, it still requires a potentially vulnerable nursing home resident to forfeit access to the courts and other important legal rights.
Kindred Nursing Centers LP v. Chrzanowski
Georgia courts tend to enforce ADR agreements even where there is evidence that a nursing home resident was not necessarily in their right mind when they purportedly agreed to arbitration. A recent decision by the Georgia Court of Appeals illustrates the uphill climb victims of nursing home abuse—or in the case, their families—face in seeking their day in court.
This case involves a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the family of a woman who died while in the care of a nursing home in Marietta, Georgia. The decedent was a woman who had been living on her own before falling and breaking her ankle. The decedent’s medical records indicated that she suffered from a number of physical and mental ailments, including coronary artery disease and “mild cognitive impairment” that affected her memory.
After her fall, the decedent entered the defendant’s nursing home. A few days after admission, hospital staff presented her with the formal paperwork, which included an ADR agreement. The defendant insisted the ADR agreement was voluntary and not required as a condition of admission. An employee of the defendant reviewed the agreement with the decedent before she signed it.
While under the defendant’s care, a number of medical professionals examined the decedent and found further cause to question her mental state. In fact, two days before signing the ADR agreement an occupational therapist said the defendant was “confused.” And the day she signed the agreement, a speech pathologist said the decedent “was severely impaired in understanding yes and no questions.”
Approximately five months after her admission, the decedent passed away. Her children subsequently filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the defendant, alleging its negligence caused their mother’s death. The defendant then moved to enforce the arbitration agreement signed by the decedent.
A trial judge denied the defendant’s motion to compel arbitration. The Georgia Court of Appeals ordered the lower court to reconsider its decision. The appeals court said the trial judge applied an incorrect legal standard to the defendant’s motion.
The trial judge said the burden was on the defendant to prove “an absence of evidence” supported the plaintiffs’ claim that the decedent lacked the mental capacity to sign the ADR agreement. The Court of Appeals said the correct standard was to presume the ADR agreement was valid—and therefore the burden of proof was on the plaintiffs to show the decedent lacked capacity. The appeals court instructed the trial judge to consider whether the plaintiffs can meet this burden of proof. The court took no position itself, but rather told the trial judge to consider any evidence regarding the decedent’s capacity “at the moment she signed” the ADR agreement.