Arbitration Agreement Upheld in Wrongful Death Case

Arbitration clauses are becoming more and more common in contracts. Arbitration is form of alternative dispute resolution where the parties to a lawsuit refer the dispute to one or more persons called arbitrators, by whose decision they agree to be bound. Arbitration can be binding or non-binding.

In the recent case of Spivey v. Teen Challenge of Florida, 38 Fla. L. Weekly D2156a, the personal representative of a deceased teenager’s estate sued a residential treatment facility for wrongful death of the teen. Before entry and enrollment in the program, the teenager signed an arbitration agreement where he agreed to resolve any disputes with the facility by mediation or legally binding arbitration in accordance with the Rules of Procedure for Christian Conciliation.

After starting treatment, the teen relapsed and was sent home, but later allowed re-entry into the program. He had issues at the Pensacola facility and was later transferred to the Jacksonville facility. He was eventually dismissed from the Jacksonville facility and transported to a local medical center and instructed he could ask for readmission within seventy-two hours.

The teen left the medical center and later died later that night from a drug overdose at a stranger’s house. The personal representative of the teen’s estate (his mother) sued the facility for wrongful death and the facility sought to enforce the arbitration clause and compel arbitration per the agreement.

The personal representative argued that she should not be bound to the arbitration agreement because the agreement did not apply to the teen’s subsequent re-entries to the facility and that she never entered into the arbitration agreement, and so the agreement only bound her son and not her.

Florida arbitration law specifies when a trial court should compel arbitration and, if the court is satisfied, that no substantial issue exists as to the making of the agreement or provision, it shall grant the application. If the court finds that a substantial issue is raised as to the making of the agreement or provision, it shall summarily hear and determine the issue and, according to its determination, shall grant or deny the application.

In this case, the trial court found that the agreement envisioned a twelve-month program and that the program appeared to be ongoing and one under which the terms and conditions that the parties agreed to at the time of the signing of the agreement would continue. The trial court also found that temporary suspensions are not uncommon with these types of programs. Further, the trial court found that as personal representative of the teen, his mother was bound by any contract or agreement made by the deceased before his death per the Florida Supreme Court law on the issue of determined whether a decedent’s estate are bound by the decedent’s actions and contracts.

The trial court’s decision was upheld on appeal and the arbitration clause was enforceable by the treatment facility.