Federal Court Certifies Arbitration Question to Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in Wrongful Death Lawsuit

When someone loses a loved one due to the negligence of an individual, business, or governmental entity, he or she should consider discussing the possibility of a wrongful death lawsuit with a qualified Massachusetts civil litigation attorney. It is important that this be done in a timely manner in order to comply with the statute of limitations for such claims.

Sometimes, there can be other considerations, as well, such as happened in a recent case involving a woman who allegedly passed away due to a nursing home’s negligence. In that case, the personal representative of the woman’s estate found herself as the defendant in a federal lawsuit brought by the nursing home, which alleged that the woman’s claim had to be arbitrated instead of being brought in the court system.

Facts of the Case

The defendant in a recent federal appellate court case was the daughter and personal representative of the estate of a woman who died in 2013 while in the care of a nursing home owned and operated by the plaintiffs. The defendant, acting as personal representative of her mother’s estate, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against one of the plaintiffs in a Massachusetts state court in 2016. According to the defendant’s state court complaint, she brought suit “on behalf of the heirs of the decedent.”

The plaintiffs then filed suit in federal court, seeking relief under the Federal Arbitration Act and asking the federal district court to compel the defendant to arbitrate, rather than litigate, the dispute between the parties. The United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts entered an order compelling arbitration and declining to issue a stay of the defendant’s state court action seeking compensation for her mother’s wrongful death from the plaintiffs. The defendant appealed.

Holding of the Reviewing Court

The United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit found that the dispute turned on the characterization of wrongful death actions in Massachusetts and thus certified questions regarding this issue to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. According to the court on appeal, the lower tribunal had found that defendant had signed several documents for her mother upon her admission to the nursing home, including a standard alternative dispute resolution agreement. The agreement apparently stated that a signature was not required as a condition to a patient’s admission or residence in the defendant’s facility. It also reportedly stated that the agreement could be revoked upon written notice within 30 days.

It was undisputed on appeal that the parties had a valid contractual agreement to arbitrate certain claims regarding the mother’s care at the plaintiff’s facility. The question thus became whether the defendant’s wrongful death claims, which she brought in her capacity as the personal representative of her mother’s estate, were derivative of a claim that her mother could have brought, such that the claims were subject to arbitration under the agreement. The defendant argued that the answer to this question was “no,” insomuch as a wrongful death beneficiary’s claims were independent of those falling under the agreement.

Finding that Massachusetts law did not clearly decide the question of whether a claim such as the defendant’s was independent verses derivative was unsettled under Massachusetts law, the federal appellate court certified to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court the question of whether the defendant’s wrongful death claim was covered under the arbitration agreement that she signed on her mother’s behalf.

Contact a Massachusetts Medical Malpractice Attorney

If you have recently had a loved one pass away because of an act of medical negligence, you may be entitled to pursue substantial money damages. However, it is important that you contact an attorney as soon as possible because there are strict filing deadlines for these types of cases. To schedule a free case evaluation with an experienced Massachusetts medical malpractice wrongful death attorney, call the Law Offices of John C. Manoog, III, at 888-262-6664. We have offices in Hyannis and Plymouth.

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