Nursing Home Patients Allowed a Jury Trial

Posted on Friday, January 17th, 2014 at 1:00 am    

Opponents of efforts by health care providers to restrict patients’ rights to a jury trial breathed a sigh of relief this week, as the Supreme Judicial Court decided a pair of cases involving nursing home arbitration agreements.  In each case, the Court rejected an argument by the nursing home that would have enforced an arbitration agreement signed by someone other than the resident.  The results are encouraging for patients and families, as they seem to indicate that the Court will not lightly find a waiver of the right to a jury trial, even when signed by persons with authority to act for the patient on some matters.

In the lead case, Johnson v. Kindred Health Care, Inc., the SJC held that the holder of a patient’s health care proxy did not have the authority to waive the patient’s right to a jury trial.  The nursing home had argued that the authorized conferred by the proxy to make “any and all health care decisions” encompassed the power to agree to arbitrate any dispute arising out of the patient’s stay at the facility.  While the Court justified its decision by a careful analysis of the precise language and purpose of the health care proxy statute, the resulting protection of the patient’s right to legal recourse when something goes wrong is reassuring.

The companion case of Licata v. GGNSC Malden Dexter LLC, decided on general agency principles, demonstrates a similar respect for the right to a jury trial, and an unwillingness to see it lightly or casually relinquished.  The Court noted G.L. c.201D §16, which permits “responsible parties to act on behalf of incompetent or incapacitated patients when there is no health care proxy, applies only to health care decisions, which pursuant to Johnson, do not include the authority to agree to arbitration.  The Court likewise rejected the nursing home’s attempt to rely on a theory that the son who signed the arbitration agreement as a “responsible party” for his mother was her apparent agent, noting that the doctrine of apparent agency requires reliance on the actions of the principal, not those of the agent.

In both cases, the result reached by the Supreme Judicial Court is far more important than its reasoning.  The right to a jury trial is one of the cornerstones of our constitution, and there is a disturbing trend, particularly in other jurisdictions, for health care providers to force patients to give up this important right as a condition of receiving treatment.  As decisions from other states show, too many patients sign that right away with little thought, and sometimes–when the waiver is buried in a stack of admission forms–without any real awareness of what they are doing.   The SJC’s decisions in Johnson and Licata reflect the Court’s respect for this fundamental right, and its unwillingness to enforce a waiver without a knowing consent by the affected individual.