Religious Arbitration Agreement Upheld in Florida Wrongful Death Case

An interesting wrongful death case regarding the validity and applicability of arbitration agreements arose recently when a nineteen-year-old enrolled at Teen Challenge’s substance abuse facility in Florida. He signed an arbitration agreement that stated he accepted the Bible as the word of God and that God wanted the parties to resolve their disputes in accord with certain Biblical principles in private meetings.

The agreement provided that if they weren’t resolved in private meetings, they would be resolved by biblically based mediation or, if not resolved there, in legally binding arbitration. He also signed a waiver that stated he understood Teen Challenge was an evangelical ministry and that he would therefore have to attend Christian religious activities.

Two months later, he broke the rules and his mother was told he would be discharged. After that, he was put in jail due to a probation violation in Tennessee where his mother lived. The Tennessee authorities permitted him to be released to try Teen Challenge again.

At the facility, he relapsed with cough medicine — this was against the rules. He was moved to another facility run by the same organization. At the new facility, the staff thought he was drunk or high and sent him to a medical center. He didn’t stay there, instead taking to the streets. At a stranger’s house, he died from multiple drug toxicity.

His mother sued Teen Challenge for wrongful death. Teen Challenge filed a motion to compel the mother to mediate or arbitrate, arguing there was nothing to preclude arbitration. The trial judge granted the motion to compel arbitration and also found the agreement didn’t take away participants’ due process or access to secular law, nor involve the mother’s First Amendment rights. The mother made a motion for reconsideration, which the trial judge denied. She appealed.

The appellate court noted there was no issue as to the validity of the arbitration agreement. It reviewed, however, whether there was error in denying her motion for reconsideration and whether the trial court should have enforced the arbitration agreement in spite of the mother’s personal constitutional objections to it.

The mother argued the trial judge erred in denying the motion for reconsideration and request for an evidentiary hearing. She believed there was a factual dispute as to whether the agreement continued to be enforceable after he was dismissed from the program the first time. Her son hadn’t signed a new agreement when he came back the second time or upon his transfer to the other facility. In Florida, courts are to grant a motion to compel arbitration if there is no substantial issue about the making of an agreement.

The trial court found that the son’s enrollment was maintained even when he was suspended and transferred. The appellate court agreed with the trial court’s decision.

The mother also argued that enforcement of the agreement violated her own rights under due process and the religion clauses of both the federal and state constitution because the arbitration would require the use of “Rules of Procedure for Christian Conciliation.” She didn’t want to be in an arbitration that invoked religious principles.

The court explained that she stood in her son’s shoes in bringing a wrongful death act. Therefore, she was bound by her son’s signature on the arbitration agreement. Moreover, the court found that the Rules were indistinguishable from those of secular arbitration organizations.

The mother’s religious objections, therefore, did not have weight. The court noted that a personal representative who disagrees with a decedent’s wishes or religious sensibilities cannot object to abiding by them.

Mediation and arbitration are favored in Florida and other states. Although the dispute is not resolved in a courtroom, it is still crucial to retain a knowledgeable attorney to help you through this process and to negotiate with the other side. If a loved one is killed due to an institution’s negligence, you may have grounds for a wrongful death lawsuit. Contact the experienced Florida wrongful death attorneys at Friedman, Rodman & Frank toll-free for a free consultation at (877) 448-8585.

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