UNITED HEALTH SERVICES OF GEORGIA, INC. ET AL. V. NORTON ET AL. (S16G1143)
PruittHealth, Inc. is frivolously appealing a Georgia Court of Appeals decision allowing a man’s wrongful death lawsuit on behalf of his deceased wife to proceed in court against one of its nursing homes, even though his wife had allegedly signed an arbitration agreement when she entered the home.
FACTS: From April 2013 until her death in April 2014, Lola Norton lived at PruittHealth-Toccoa nursing home, which is owned and managed by United Health Services of Georgia, Inc. While in the facility, Lola allegedly suffered injuries and harm, including falls, fractures, weight loss, and ultimately death. Following her death, her husband, Bernard Norton through his son and power of attorney, Kim Norton, filed a lawsuit claiming several causes of action including wrongful death, and alleging that all of Lola’s injuries and death were the result of the nursing home’s inadequate care and inadequate staff.
The lawsuit was against PruittHealth, United Health Services and seven other defendants who are affiliates or employees of PruittHealth. In response, the defendants filed a motion asking the court to dismiss the case, or in the alternative, to stay the proceedings and compel arbitration. The trial court granted their motion and compelled the entire case and all its claims to arbitration. Norton and his family appealed, and the Court of Appeals partially reversed the trial court’s ruling.
While the Court of Appeals found that the estate claims were barred by the arbitration agreement, it reversed the trial court’s order compelling arbitration of the wrongful death claim. The appellate court found there was no evidence that Lola’s wrongful death beneficiaries had entered into an agreement of their own to arbitrate their separate, distinct claims. United Health Services, PruittHealth and the others now appeal to the Georgia Supreme Court, which has agreed to review the case to determine whether an arbitration agreement signed by a person during her lifetime, which binds her and her estate to arbitration in the event of a dispute, is enforceable against her beneficiaries in a wrongful death action.
Attorneys for the Nortons argue the Court of Appeals correctly determined that wrongful death beneficiaries who are not parties to an arbitration agreement are not required to arbitrate their claims. “The Federal Arbitration act does not mandate enforcement of the arbitration agreement in this matter,” they argue in briefs. “Here, Lola Norton’s wrongful death beneficiaries were not parties to the arbitration agreement” she had signed during her lifetime, and Lola “did not have the authority to send her wrongful death beneficiaries’ claims to arbitration.”
Georgia law also does not require enforcement of the arbitration agreement against the wrongful death beneficiaries in this matter, the lawyers contend. United Health Services and the others incorrectly argue the Court of Appeals erred by treating arbitrations differently than other contracts. Under Georgia Code § 13-3-1, a valid contract contains three elements: subject matter of the contract, consideration, and mutual assent by all parties to all contract terms. “Lola Norton’s wrongful death beneficiaries were not parties to the arbitration contract at issue and, like any other contract related to the forum or any other procedural defense, there is simply no contract regarding their claims,” the attorneys contend.
“Wrongful death claims are required to be brought by a different party than survival/estate claims, have separate damages, and a separate statute of limitations.” “Since wrongful death beneficiaries have their own separate and distinct claim, it is also logical that they should have a say in where and how their claim will be litigated,” the family’s attorneys argue. “Wrongful death beneficiaries cannot lose their right to choose their forum or whether to arbitrate their claims if they did not…sign a contract or agreement to arbitrate.” Finally, courts in other states have reached a similar conclusion as the Georgia Court of Appeals regarding wrongful death beneficiaries’ claims, the attorneys contend.