The Florida Supreme Court late last month ruled in favor of a plaintiff fighting the enforcement of an arbitration agreement following a dispute regarding the care of her infant son, who was stillborn.
In the case of Hernandez v. Crespo, the state high court ruled the arbitration agreement between the child’s mother and the women’s clinic from which she was receiving treatment was invalid. Had the court upheld the agreement as binding, plaintiff would have been forced to handle her dispute through a private arbitration process, rather than the public courts.
Given that there are many downsides to the arbitration process for plaintiffs, this ruling is likely to have a positive effect for medical malpractice plaintiffs in Florida. Arbitration agreements have become the center of numerous types of civil disputes, from nursing home abuse to product liability. Companies are increasingly requiring customers enter into these agreements that are often unfair. In many cases, customers (or in this case, patients,) may not understand what exactly they are giving up.
Arbitration agreements are confidential, which means defendants have less incentive to deal fairly with plaintiffs. Arbitrators often decide claims in favor of defendants (much more so than in a court of law) and are not bound by the rules of law. Even when they do decide a case in favor of plaintiff, the damages awarded are often for far less than they would be had the case been tried in court.
The majority of the court sided with the plaintiff in finding the arbitration agreement was void against public policy. Specifically, the court found that the terms of the agreement were clearly favorable to the clinic. For example, the clinic had all the power in selecting the arbitrator.
Further, the majority ruled that arbitration agreements, which undoubtedly can impact the cost, award and fairness incentives of the state’s Medical Malpractice Act are contrary to lawmakers’ intent, which means they are void against public policy. The court noted that if lawmakers had wanted to allow medical providers to be able to pick and choose the provisions of the law they wanted to include in their arbitration agreements, it would have specifically said so. Essentially, this means many existing arbitration agreements may not be enforceable in medical malpractice disputes.
The specific events that gave rise to this case began in August 2011. Plaintiff was 39 weeks pregnant and started to have contractions. Despite this, she was turned away from her doctor’s appointment for being a few minutes late and rescheduled for four days later. However, her son was stillborn the day before that appointment.
The following year, plaintiff filed notice of the medical malpractice lawsuit. Defendants responded later with a motion to compel arbitration agreement plaintiff signed when she first became a patient of the facility. The arbitration agreement indicated that the term “patient” would be understood to mean both the mother and unborn child. Plaintiff signed the agreement, but her husband did not.
In its review, the Florida Supreme Court noted the agreement diverged from statutory provisions on six issues, specifically:
- Doctors would not have to concede liability;
- Agreement does not guarantee independent arbitrators or that one be an administrative law judge, as required by statute;
- Agreement shares costs equally, rather than having the defendant facility assume most of the costs as in the law;
- Agreement does not provide plaintiff’s interest on damages;
- Agreement does not require joint and several liability of defendants, as the law does;
- Agreement dispenses the right to appeal, as allowed by the law.
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Hernandez v. Crespo, Dec. 22, 2016, Florida Supreme Court
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Newton v. Caterpillar – Florida’s Dangerous Instrumentality Doctrine Raised in Work Injury Lawsuit, Jan. 4, 2016, Orlando Medical Malpractice Lawyer Blog