The Star-Tribune had an article about one family’s fight for justice for their neglected dad.  Gerald Seeger was a resident of an assisted living facility, Lighthouse of Columbia Heights.  The facility failed to respond promptly when Seeger, repeatedly vomited and screamed for help while pointing to his badly swollen stomach. After hours of suffering, Seeger died of complications related to a common hernia. State investigators later cited the facility for failing to provide timely medical care.

In 2014 when Joan Maurer arrived at her father’s room at Lighthouse. She was shocked by what she found. Her father, a florist who just a week earlier had been laughing and stomping his foot to old-time music, had turned ashen and was vomiting in plastic cups, she said. Photographs from that day show that his stomach had swollen like a balloon.  Despite Seeger’s visible suffering, the staff had not called for emergency help.

“I knelt by his side, grabbed his hand and said, ‘Dad, I’ll get you to a hospital.”  Maurer called 911, and on the ambulance ride to the hospital, Seeger rated his pain as a “10 out of 10” on the pain scale, state records show. “I was horrified,” Maurer said. “I never want to see another human being in that much pain for as long as I live.”

Investigators from the state Department of Health later found multiple lapses in Seeger’s care. Despite a history of hernia problems, staff at the senior home failed to follow a physician’s instructions and notify medical professionals immediately if he had any pain or tenderness in the groin area, state records show. On the evening and overnight shift before he died, Seeger complained of stomach pain and vomited; but such symptoms were not promptly reported to a nurse, state investigators found.

His daughter had a strong legal case so she sued over the sudden death of her father.  But Maurer is still fighting for a chance to hold Lighthouse accountable in court. Attorneys for the facility claim that she forfeited the constitutional right to sue when she signed a densely worded contract that forced the family into private arbitration if a dispute arose, even one involving a wrongful death claim.

I never believed they would arbitrate my father’s life like he’s a piece of paper, and not a living, breathing human being,” said Maurer.

Over mounting objections from consumer groups and regulators, arbitration agreements like the one Maurer signed are proliferating in the senior care industry. Hundreds of Minnesota nursing homes and assisted-living centers now request that elderly people sign arbitration clauses on admission. The clauses require them to forfeit their right to a court hearing and, instead, lock elderly residents into a secretive process for resolving claims. Even in cases of extreme neglect and death, nursing homes use the clauses to block residents and their families from pursuing lawsuits.

 In Minnesota and nationally, more attorneys are seeking to throw out arbitration clauses, particularly in cases where there is evidence that elderly residents were coerced into signing the contracts. In a recent case, the Kentucky Supreme Court refused to enforce arbitration agreements in three wrongful-death cases, ruling that legal representatives of nursing-home residents lack the authority to waive another’s “God-given right” to a jury trial.

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