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District Court Certifies Questions Regarding Binding Arbitration Agreements in Wrongful Death Claims to Massachusetts Court

Wrongful death claims allow a personal representative of an estate to seek compensation for any pain and suffering their loved one experienced prior to his or her death, as well as medical expenses and loss of the deceased person’s services and income. While it is obvious that a wrongful death claim can only be pursued in the event of a person’s death, it is less clear whether an arbitration agreement entered into by a decedent is binding on the decedent’s personal representative in the pursuit of a wrongful death claim.

The  United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit recently certified the question of whether an agreement to arbitrate entered into by a person prior to his or her death is binding on the person’s beneficiaries to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC). If you suffered the loss of a loved one due to someone else’s negligence, it is essential to consult an experienced Massachusetts personal injury attorney to assist you in pursuing your wrongful death claim.

The Decedent’s Arbitration Agreement

It is reported that the decedent was taken by ambulance to a nursing home run by the plaintiffs. Upon her admission, the defendant, who was the decedent’s daughter, signed multiple documents on behalf of the decedent, including an Alternative Dispute Resolution Agreement (the Agreement). The defendant was permitted to sign these documents pursuant to a document executed by the decedent, granting the defendant power of attorney. The Agreement stated that any disputes would be resolved exclusively by mediation, and if mediation was unsuccessful, binding arbitration. The decedent died and the defendant subsequently filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the plaintiffs in state court.

Allegedly, the plaintiffs then filed an action in federal court to compel the defendant to arbitrate the claim. As there was no state law decision on the precise issue, the district court predicted that the SJC would find that the agreement was binding on the defendant. The defendant subsequently asked the court of appeals to certify the question to the SJC.

Binding Arbitration Agreements in Wrongful Death Claims

The court noted that an agreement to arbitrate is a binding contract. In determining whether an agreement to arbitrate is binding on a personal representative following a person’s death, the court must determine whether wrongful death claims are independent or derivative of the decedent’s claim. The defendant argued that the SJC had definitively stated that SJC claims are independent. The plaintiff conceded that the SJC did rule wrongful death claims to be independent at one point, but argued that later amendments to the wrongful death statute rendered those rulings moot.

Moreover, the court stated that the SJC has since held that the law has evolved to the point where a wrongful death claim was a common law claim. In sum, the court found that Massachusetts law was not clear as to whether a wrongful death action was a derivative or independent cause of action. As such, the court certified the questions of whether it was a derivative or independent cause of action, and whether the subject arbitration agreement was nonetheless binding on the defendant, to the SJC.

Consult a Capable Massachusetts Personal Injury Attorney

If your loved one’s death was caused by negligent actions or inaction, you should consult a capable Massachusetts personal injury attorney to discuss whether you may be able to pursue a wrongful death claim.  The personal injury attorneys of Karsner & Meehan will work tirelessly to help you recoup any compensation you may be able to recover. We can be reached at 508-822-6600 or through our online form to schedule a confidential and free meeting.

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