Most nursing homes request that newly admitted residents sign contracts called arbitration agreements, which effectively prevent the resident from filing a personal injury or wrongful death lawsuit if anything goes wrong in the future.  But is the agreement you signed truly enforceable?  If the nursing home failed to sign or complete the agreement, you may have the right to a jury trial.

PA Court Finds Unclear Binding Arbitration Agreement Unenforceable

In Bair v. Manor Care of Elizabethtown, the PA Superior Court ruled that an arbitration agreement is unenforceable if not completed and signed by both parties.  Judge Mary Jane Bowes authored the opinion, which was rendered on January 15, 2015.

By way of procedural history, the plaintiff, Ms. Sylvia Bair, filed a wrongful death and survival action against Manor Care of Elizabethtown nursing home alleging that her mother was neglected and abused during her stay.  The defendant filed preliminary objections that the case should be sent to binding arbitration pursuant to a written agreement.

The trial court overruled Manor Care’s preliminary objections and Manor Care appealed to the Pennsylvania Superior Court.  The Superior Court noted that Ms. Bair, who had power of attorney for her mother, signed an admissions agreement upon placement of her mother at the facility.

However, no Manor Care representative ever completed or signed the form on behalf of the facility.  Ms. Bair testified that no one from the nursing home explained the nature of the arbitration agreement to her, and she believed it was signed only to facilitate her mother’s admission.

The Court found that the arbitration agreement lacked a “meeting of the minds” due to Manor Care’s failure to fill in essential terms, such as the names of the parties, and sign the agreement.  Citing Lackner v. Glosser, the court wrote that a contract must be “intentional and sufficiently definite in its terms,” and that “no offer will be found to exist where it’s essential terms are unclear.”

Therefore, it upheld the trial court’s decision holding that there was no “mutual assent of the parties to enter into a contract.”  Accordingly, the Superior Court found that the trial court did not abuse its discretion by overruling Manor Care’s preliminary objections.

judge with gavel signing legal document nursing home abuse lawsuit

Why is this Ruling Significant to Nursing Home Malpractice Cases?

Simply put, pre-dispute binding arbitration agreements are bad for consumers and nursing home residents.  Nursing homes administrators request that residents sign arbitration agreements to deprive them of the right to a trial by jury.  Many consumers, such as Sylvia Blair, don’t always realize the significance of the arbitration agreement when signing.

Moreover, many people do not know they that are not required to sign a binding arbitration agreement as a prerequisite to admission!

This ruling is significant because it is another tool plaintiff’s lawyers can utilize to avoid binding arbitration in personal injury or wrongful death cases.  This finding of the Court that there was no “mutual assent” is very important in light of other Pennsylvania precedents holding that contracts may be enforced against the signing party.

Often, admissions agreements and binding arbitration contracts are either incomplete or are not signed by all parties.  The admission paperwork is usually completed by an overworked nursing home administrator who may not pay attention to detail.  If the administrator fails to fill out the agreement completely, or sign on behalf of the facility, the contract may not be enforceable — even if the contract is signed by the resident or his/her power of attorney.

This is a huge win for nursing home malpractice victims, because the right to a trial by jury has many significant advantages when compared with binding arbitration.  If you’re planning on placing your loved one into a home in Elizabethtown or elsewhere in Lancaster County, it’s worth familiarizing yourself with Pennsylvania residents’ legal rights so you’re prepared if you run into any violations or non-compliance issues.

If you’re concerned about the quality of care your elderly relative is receiving, call Lancaster County nursing home abuse lawyer Brent Wieand at (800) 481-5206 today.  Brent offers free, no-obligation consultations to all new clients, and will always keep your information confidential.