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Family of Nursing Home Wrongful Death Victim Not Bound to Arbitrate

The Georgia Court of Appeals has reversed a trial court’s decision that wrongful death beneficiaries are bound to arbitrate claims against a nursing home when the decedent’s power of attorney holder signed an arbitration agreement when the decedent was admitted to a nursing home.  The Appeals court reasoned that while the power of attorney did bind the estate to arbitrate five other claims (e.g., medical malpractice, negligence, fraud, etc.) the power of attorney did not bind the wrongful death beneficiaries to the arbitration agreement.  

The Court held that a wrongful death action represents a new and different cause of action in that the beneficiaries that can sue for wrongful death did not sign or bind themselves to arbitrate such claims.  Since a wrongful claim does not technically “belong” to a decedent, the decedent cannot obligate this claim.  Because the holder of a power of attorney stands in the shoes of the to be decedent, this attorney also cannot bind a wrongful death claim.  Only the holders or owners of a wrongful death claim can bind such a claim.

As a general proposition, the value of a wrongful death claim is determined by considering the full value of the life of the person who has died, the decedent.  A wrongful death action does not take into account physical injuries that might have caused the death — that is a separate claim called the estate claim.  In that case, the estate can potentially sue for the decedent’s pre-death damages such as pain and suffering, medical expenses, lost income, etc.  It is also important to note that a wrongful death claim, as a separate cause of action, has a statute of limitations that is different from the estate claim.

The consequence of this decision could have an impact on the potential recovery the family can make, especially in this scenario where the decedent was not working and in poor health to begin with.