Can an Arbitration Agreement Survive a Signatory's Death?

By George Lott
In recently released Laizure v. Avante at Leesburg, Inc. (SC10-2132), the Supreme Court considered when an arbitration clause may survive the death of a party to an agreement containing such a clause.
In May of 2006, Harry Lee Stewart entered an Avante nursing home to undergo rehabilitation from a recent surgery. Upon his admittance, Stewart signed an agreement that stipulated that admitted parties must agree to arbitrate any claim against the nursing home based on “breach of contract, breach of fiduciary duty, fraud or misrepresentation, common law or statutory negligence, gross negligence, malpractice or a claim based on any departure from accepted standards of medical or nursing care, where the alleged damages exceed ten thousand dollars ($10,000).” The agreement further stated that it would be binding on the admitted parties’ representatives, agents, heirs, and assigns.
Soon after Stewart’s admittance to Avante, he passed away. Upon his death, Stewart’s personal representative, Debra Laizure, filed suit against the nursing home alleging violation of the Florida Nursing Home Residents’ Rights Act and for wrongful death. Laizure argued that the wrongful death claim was not arbitrable because the claim was an independent cause of action under Florida’s Wrongful Death Act, sections 768.16-768.26, Florida Statutes.
Avant filed a motion to compel arbitration. The trial court granted the motion. On appeal, the Fifth District affirmed the trial court’s order and certified to the Supreme Court of Florida the question of “whether a nursing home arbitration agreement signed by a nursing home resident, or his or her representative, binds the resident’s estate and statutory heirs to arbitration in a subsequent wrongful death action arising from an alleged tort within the scope of an otherwise valid arbitration agreement.”
Citing Siefert v. U.S. Home Corp., 750 So. 2d 633 (Fla. 1999), the Court described three required elements in ruling on a motion to compel arbitration: (1) whether a valid written agreement to arbitrate exists; (2) whether an arbitrable issue exists; and (3) whether the right to arbitration was waived. Only the first two elements applied to this case.
The Court commenced its analysis by examining the scope of the arbitration agreement. It found that the terms of the agreement included negligence as an arbitrable claim and that the parties intended it to also include wrongful death causes of action. The Court also found that the agreement expressly applied to Stewart’s estate and his heirs. The court provided the example of a decedent signing a release of liability agreement in a personal injury action. In that situation, the estate would be precluded from bringing a cause of action because of the decedent’s agreement. Warren v. Cohen, 363 So. 2d 129 (Fla. 3d DCA 1978).
The Court discussed the Florida Wrongful Death Act and explained the derivative nature of wrongful death claims. Although the Wrongful Death Act establishes an independent claim for survivors, the right of recovery is dependent on the decedent’s right to recover. Had the right to recovery been waived by the decedent, the heirs would have been bound by the waiver. Similarly, because Stewart agreed to arbitrate any claim he might have had against the nursing house, his estate and heirs would be bound by the arbitration agreement.