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Florida Supreme Court rejects arbitration in nursing-home injury case


With similar questions popping up across the state in recent years, the Florida Supreme Court on Thursday said a lawsuit about injuries suffered by a nursing-home resident should not be sent to arbitration.

The Miami-Dade County case centered on a contract that was signed in 2009 by Juan Mendez Jr. when his father, Juan Sr., was admitted to Hampton Court Nursing Center, the ruling said. Part of the contract said legal disputes would be resolved in arbitration, rather than going to court and potentially being decided by a jury.

But in 2011, the elder Mendez suffered an infection that required the removal of his left eye. The son later filed a lawsuit against the nursing home in Miami-Dade County Circuit Court on his father’s behalf, but the nursing home argued that the case should go to arbitration. The father died in 2013, but the legal dispute continued.

A circuit judge and the 3rd District Court of Appeal agreed with the nursing home’s position that the case should go to arbitration. But in a 5-2 decision Thursday, the Supreme Court said the father could not be bound by an arbitration requirement that his son had signed without the father’s agreement.

“We would never enforce an admission agreement if a nursing home obtained a resident’s signature by threatening the violent destruction of the resident’s property unless the resident signed the agreement,” said the majority opinion, written by Justice James E.C. Perry and joined by Chief Justice Jorge Labarga and justices Barbara Pariente, R. Fred Lewis and Peggy Quince. “If we will not enforce a contract when a party agrees under threat or duress, then we should not enforce a contract in the absence of the party’s agreement altogether.”

But justices Charles Canady and Ricky Polston wrote dissenting opinions, with Polston saying the majority opinion “obliterates longstanding Florida contract law” related to such issues.

Polston cited part of the 3rd District Court of Appeal ruling that said the father “lacked the capacity to give informed consent or make medical decisions” when admitted to the nursing home. While the son did not have a power of attorney, he indicated in signing the admission agreement that he was his father’s representative.

“The majority’s decision will allow courts to arbitrarily disavow arbitration clauses as occurs here by Hampton Court being denied arbitration with Juan Mendez Jr., the very person who signed the contract at issue,” Polston argued in his dissent.

Perry, however, wrote that the majority found the “father’s mental capacity does not impact the outcome of this case.”

“Any adult person — presumably including an individual affiliated with Hampton Court — could have petitioned for a court to adjudicate the father incapacitated and appoint a guardian [under state law],” Perry wrote. “An appointed guardian would have held the power to contract on the father’s behalf for his residency at Hampton Court. Hampton Court elected not to seek appointment of a guardian, and we decline to use common law contract principles to conduct an end-run around the Legislature’s comprehensive guardianship scheme.”

Appeals courts across the state in recent years have dealt with questions about the validity of arbitration agreements that nursing-home residents or family members have signed at the time of admission.

The cases have dealt with a variety of scenarios, but Perry’s majority opinion said appeals courts were divided in their handling of disputes involving facts similar to the Mendez case.

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