Articles Posted in Nursing Home Abuse and Negligence

In June of 2019, a state appellate court issued a written opinion in a Florida wrongful death case discussing whether the evidence presented by the plaintiff was sufficient to warrant punitive damages against the defendant nursing home. Ultimately, the court concluded that, while the evidence showed “multiple appalling examples” of situations where nursing home staff “dropped the ball,” the staff’s negligence was not attributable to the nursing home.

According to the court’s opinion, the estate of a woman who died while in the care of the defendant nursing home brought a Florida wrongful death claim against the facility, claiming that the facility’s negligence caused of the woman’s death. After the initial complaint was filed, the estate sought leave to amend to add a claim for punitive damages. The lower court granted the estate’s request, and the defendant nursing home appealed.

On appeal, the lower court’s decision to allow the estate to seek punitive damages was reversed. The court began its analysis by noting that when a plaintiff seeks to leave to amend to add a claim for punitive damages, a trial court must determine whether “there is sufficient admissible evidence … to ensure that there is a reasonable basis to believe that the claimant, at trial, will be able to demonstrate … such damages [are] warranted.” The court added that a plaintiff could meet this burden by proving either direct liability or vicarious liability.

When someone is killed due to the negligence of another person or entity, the Florida wrongful death statute allows for the surviving loved ones of the deceased to pursue a claim for compensation against the at-fault parties. Under Florida Statutes section 768.18, these claims are generally brought for the benefit of the spouse, parent, or child of the deceased, but can be brought on behalf of other family members in certain situations.

One issue that frequently comes up in wrongful death cases is whether the survivors’ claim against the at-fault party is derivative of their deceased loved one’s claim. This is a fairly complex topic, and courts across the country have wrestled with this question for years, often coming to different results. Indeed, in a recent federal appellate opinion, the court certified a question to state supreme court, asking that court to answer whether wrongful death claims are derivative.

The Facts of the Case

According to the court’s opinion, the plaintiff’s mother was taken by ambulance to the defendant nursing home. Before she was admitted, the plaintiff signed a pre-admission form, containing, among other things, an agreement to arbitrate all claims. At the time, the plaintiff’s mother had executed a power of attorney document in favor of the plaintiff. Later, the plaintiff’s mother died while in the care of the defendant nursing home, and the plaintiff filed a wrongful death case against the facility.

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In many Florida personal injury cases, the case comes down to physical evidence. For example, in a lawsuit claiming that a defective tire was responsible for a serious Florida car accident, the tire would seem to be a critical piece of evidence. However, in the wake of a serious accident, the parties involved may not be thinking about an upcoming lawsuit. This raises the possibility that a party may destroy – either intentionally or unintentionally – important evidence.

Under Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.380, courts can sanction a party for failing to preserve evidence. The sanctions that a court can impose against a party ranges from precluding the party from admitting evidence, prohibiting certain claims or defenses, giving the jury an adverse inference instruction, or dismissal of a case.

Generally, a court will not impose serious sanctions on a party who inadvertently destroys evidence. In Florida, when determining what sanction is appropriate, courts consider 1.) whether the destruction of evidence was willful or done in bad faith, 2.) the prejudice suffered by the other party, and 3.) whether the prejudice could be cured by the court. A recent case illustrates how courts handle claims of spoliation.

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In any Florida personal injury case brought against a nursing home, one issue that frequently arises is whether the resident has previously agreed to arbitrate their claim, rather than proceed through the court system. This is a critical issue because, in some cases, an arbitration clause signed by a resident may also preclude a resident’s family member from pursuing a claim against the nursing home.

While arbitration is supposed to be a neutral alternative to the court system, most experts agree that arbitration favors nursing homes for several reasons. For example, arbitration is generally a quicker process than a traditional lawsuit, saving nursing homes significant money on litigation costs. More concerning, however, is that arbitration proceedings are not bound by the procedural and evidentiary rules that apply in a Florida personal injury lawsuit. Finally, arbitration results are generally kept secret and cannot be appealed.

Given the benefits arbitration offers to nursing homes, most Florida nursing homes include arbitration agreements in their pre-admission contracts. Generally, a valid arbitration contract is enforceable. However, to prove that an arbitration agreement binds a plaintiff, a nursing home must establish that the plaintiff’s case falls within the agreement. Recently, the U.S. Supreme Court issued an opinion discussing whether a court can determine, as a preliminary matter, whether a claim must be resolved through arbitration.

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Recently, a state appellate court issued an opinion in a Florida nursing home negligence lawsuit requiring the court to determine if the plaintiff’s case was properly brought in court or if she was required to submit the case to arbitration. Ultimately, the court concluded that while there was one clause in the agreement that was unenforceable, the agreement as a whole should be upheld. Thus, the plaintiff was still required to submit her case through arbitration.

The Facts

The plaintiff was the estate of a woman who died while in the care of the defendant nursing home. Prior to the woman’s admission into the nursing home, she executed an arbitration agreement. Essentially, the agreement waived her right to pursue a claim against the nursing home in a court of law, favoring resolution of any claims through the arbitration process.

After the woman died, the estate filed a personal injury lawsuit against the nursing home, claiming that the arbitration agreement the woman had signed was unenforceable because while the agreement stipulated that Florida substantive law would be applied at the arbitration proceedings, it also stipulated that Alabama rules of evidence and procedural rules would apply.

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Nursing homes have come under fire over the past few years for the manner in which they get residents and their families to give up their right to pursue a case against the nursing home in court. Often, these arbitration clauses are, at best, written in small text hidden among countless other pages of documents or, at worst, presented to residents in a take-it-or-leave it fashion, such that if they refuse to sign their application will be rejected.An arbitration clause is not so much about what a nursing home resident is getting, but about what they give up. Under the U.S. Constitution, everyone has the right to access the court system to resolve grievances; however, that right can be waived through an explicit agreement to arbitrate all claims instead of using the court system. One of the problems with arbitration, however, is that it often puts a nursing home at an unfair advantage.

Thus, government agencies and watch-dog groups have been advocating for nursing homes to do away with arbitration clauses in their pre-admission paperwork. These are often presented to a potential resident or their family in a time of desperation, when the consequences of waiving their rights may not be fully realized. Notwithstanding that fact, nursing homes continue to include arbitration clauses in their pre-admission paperwork, although few have the gall to deny a resident admission if they refuse to sign it. Instead, nursing homes are relying on a resident not fully understanding what it is they are signing or simply overlooking the clause altogether.

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In most Florida nursing home abuse and neglect cases, the threshold issue is whether the case can be pursued through the court system, or if the plaintiff must pursue their claim for compensation through the arbitration process. The reason this issue so often arises is because nursing homes routinely include arbitration agreements in their pre-admission paperwork.While arbitration is generally understood to be a more favorable forum for a nursing home, many families end up signing these agreements due to the inherent emotional pressures that are present at the time a decision must be made. While courts do have the ability to declare arbitration agreements void, it is the plaintiff’s burden to establish why that is the case.

In a recent opinion, the plaintiff’s case was dismissed based on an arbitration agreement that she had signed prior to admitting her mother into the defendant nursing home. In so holding, the court rejected the plaintiff’s argument that, at the time she signed the document, she did not have the legal authority to do so.

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Recently, a state appellate court issued a written opinion in a personal injury lawsuit that was filed against a Florida nursing home. The case presented the court with the opportunity to discuss the validity of an arbitration contract that was signed by a resident’s wife prior to the resident’s admission into the nursing home.

Nursing Home Arbitration Contracts

When someone is admitted into a Florida nursing home, the nursing home will require that the resident sign a pre-admission contract outlining the expectations, rights, and remedies of the parties. More often than not, these pre-admission contracts contain a clause whereby the parties agree to submit any claims that may arise between the parties to binding arbitration, rather than filing a case through the court system.

What nursing homes rarely tell prospective patients is that an agreement to arbitrate claims cannot be forced upon a resident or their family. In other words, if a resident does not agree to arbitration but agrees with the remaining terms of the contract, the nursing home should not reject the resident’s application based on that fact.

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When someone is killed due to the negligence of another party, the survivors of the deceased may be entitled to financial compensation for their loss through a Florida wrongful death lawsuit. In order to succeed in a wrongful death lawsuit, a plaintiff must establish that their loved one’s death was a result of a negligent act or omission of the defendant.One issue that frequently comes up in wrongful death lawsuits, especially those arising in the context of nursing home abuse or neglect, is whether an arbitration agreement between the deceased and the defendant can be enforced against a survivor of the deceased when they file a wrongful death lawsuit. The short answer, in Florida, is “yes.”

A recent case in another state clearly illustrates the issue of derivativeness and its importance.

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Earlier this month, an appellate court issued a written opinion in a nursing home case brought by the surviving loved ones of a woman who died while in the care of the defendant nursing home facility. The case presented a hot-button issue in many nursing home cases across the country:  the enforceability of an arbitration clause that was contained in a pre-admission contract. Ultimately, the court concluded that the plaintiff was bound by the arbitration clause because the person who signed on the resident’s behalf had the authority to do so, and the clause itself was not contrary to public policy or otherwise unenforceable.

The Facts of the Case

The plaintiff was the daughter of a nursing home resident who died shortly after being admitted to the hospital while she was a resident at the defendant nursing home. The allegations were that the nursing home failed to implement a safety protocol to prevent residents from falling. The evidence presented suggested that the plaintiff’s loved one fell at least twice during her stay, resulting in injuries that worsened and eventually led to her premature death.

Prior to the resident’s admission into the nursing home, one of the resident’s daughters signed a pre-admission contract. That contract had an arbitration clause contained in it, which stated that the parties agreed to submit any claims between the two to binding arbitration, rather than handling them through the court system. At the time, the resident had executed a power of attorney document, granting her daughter power over her affairs “without limitation.”

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