Tuesday, August 24, 2010
S.C.: Healthcare Arbitration Agreement With Deceased May Be Binding on Wrongful Death Claimants
By STEVEN M. ELLIS, Staff Writer
Patients who sign agreements to arbitrate medical malpractice claims can bind their heirs in wrongful death actions, the California Supreme Court held yesterday.
Reversing a decision by the Fourth District Court of Appeal’s Div. Three, the high court ruled 6-1 that agreements entered pursuant to Code of Civil Procedure Sec. 1295 can bind nonparties where the language of the agreement manifests an intent to do so.
The statute—enacted in 1975 as part of the Medical Injury Compensation Reform Act, which was intended to combat “skyrocketing” medical malpractice insurance rates—contemplates use of arbitration agreements to resolve disputes concerning “professional negligence,” and defines that term as including wrongful death.
Justice Carlos R. Moreno, weighing the fact that wrongful death actions are independent actions accruing to a decedent’s heirs against MICRA’s encouragement of arbitration “as a speedy and relatively inexpensive means of dispute resolution,” wrote that a contrary conclusion would undermine the act’s goal of reducing insurance premiums.
Justice Joyce L. Kennard, however, dissented that there was no evidence the Legislature intended to allow patients to give up the jury trial rights of family members by agreeing on their behalf to arbitration.
The wife and adult children of Rafael Ruiz sued Dr. Anatol Podolsky, an orthopedic surgeon, claiming that his failure to adequately identify and treat Ruiz’s hip fracture in 2006 resulted in complications and Ruiz’s eventual death.
Ruiz signed a “Physician-Patient Arbitration Agreement” during an appointment with Podolsky about treatment, and it provided for arbitration of any malpractice claims consistent with the language of Sec. 1295. It also provided for arbitration of wrongful death and loss of consortium claims.
Podolsky, pointing to the agreement, sought to compel arbitration as to the claims by Ruiz’s wife—who conceded she was a subject to the agreement—and the children. He argued that the children were “swept up” into the agreement due to the “one action rule” for wrongful death suits, but Orange Superior Court Judge James Di Cesare disagreed.
Di Cesare granted the petition as to Ruiz’s wife, but not as to the children, and then stayed the action pending the resolution of arbitration in order to avoid inconsistent rulings.
Podolsky appealed, but the Fourth District, in an opinion by Justice Kathleen O’Leary, concluded that Di Cesare ruled correctly. O’Leary reasoned that the children were not required to arbitrate where they had not consented to do so, and that there was no reason to compel arbitration merely because it was required as to their mother’s claim.
But Moreno said that requiring arbitration only as to Ruiz’s wife would defeat Podolsky’s “reasonable contractual expectations.”
The justice wrote that requiring all heirs to be signatories to an arbitration agreement before it could be enforced would be impractical, and could interfere with doctor-patient confidentiality insofar as it would require disclosure of information regarding the condition a patient sought to treat.
He also reasoned that not giving such agreements binding effect would undermine Sec. 1295’s purpose, but said that the opposite conclusion would not interfere with the right to maintain a wrongful death claim, which could still be pursued through arbitration.
Kennard, however, countered that the possibility “[t]hat parallel proceedings might defeat some of the savings associated with arbitration has never been a reason to force arbitration upon parties that did not agree to it.”
Chief Justice Ronald M. George, Justices Marvin R. Baxter, Ming W. Chin and Carol A. Corrigan, and Third District Court of Appeal Presiding Justice Arthur G. Scotland, sitting by assignment, joined Moreno in his opinion. Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar did not participate.
The case is Ruiz v. Podolsky, 10 S.O.S. 4972.
Copyright 2010, Metropolitan News Company