Recently, a state appellate court issued an opinion in an Arizona wrongful death lawsuit brought on behalf of a nursing home resident who died after falling out of a wheelchair. According to the court’s opinion, the plaintiff’s mother was admitted to the nursing home in 2013. At admission, the plaintiff, acting as the “responsible party,” signed the forms for his mother because she was suffering from various cognitive and physical impairments. Included in the admissions agreement was an arbitration clause for “any dispute as to medical malpractice.” The issue on appeal was whether the plaintiff’s cause of action falls under medical malpractice and if the arbitration clause bound him.
The incident giving rise to the action occurred when the woman was returning to her room after breakfast. A certified nursing assistant was pushing the woman’s wheelchair when the woman’s foot got caught in a loose cord. The entanglement caused the woman to go flying out of her wheelchair head-first onto the floor, breaking her neck upon impact. The woman died from her injuries several days later. The plaintiff filed a lawsuit against the nursing home, alleging that they were negligent and liable for his mother’s wrongful death. The nursing home moved to compel arbitration, arguing that although on its face the claim seemed like a negligence action, it was actually a medical malpractice claim.
Arizona law provides that the primary prerequisite to compelling arbitration is an actual agreement to do so. When there is a disagreement about whether the parties agreed to arbitrate, the courts will look to the parties’ intent by evaluating the language of the agreement. In this case, the arbitration clause defines “medical malpractice” as a dispute related to medical services. Further, the legislature defines “medical services” as actions that relate to medical care and are performed at the direction of healthcare professionals.