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West Virginia Supreme Court Finds State Nursing Home Law Preempted by Federal Arbitration Act – Brown v. Genesis Healthcare Corp.

Last week, I wrote as a Pennsylvania nursing home lawyer about arbitration agreements in nursing homes. This is a hot topic right now, as more and more private homes require patients or their families to sign arbitration agreements as part of their admissions to the home. That was true in the several consolidated cases before the West Virginia Supreme Court in Brown v. Genesis Healthcare Corp. et al, decided June 29. In all three of the cases at hand, patients; family members signed arbitration agreements with nursing homes, and later sought to sue the homes for substandard care after the patients died. Prior to death, all three were admitted to hospitals with conditions including infection, dehydration, pneumonia, malnutrition and untreated pressure sores.

In each case, the nursing homes asked the courts to dismiss their claims and compel arbitration under the contracts. In two of the cases, the plaintiffs appealed from a dismissal; in the third, the trial court asked the Supreme Court to decide whether the Federal Arbitration Act preempted the West Virginia Nursing Home Act. The Supreme Court started by noting that families are generally under a lot of pressure and unable to shop around when choosing a nursing home. The Nursing Home Act prohibits patients and their representatives from waiving their rights to the courts. However, the Supreme Court said, the FAA preempts the state Act because the state Act does not provide “grounds for the revocation of any contract”; it applies specifically to nursing home arbitration contracts.

The court next looked at the plaintiffs’ contention that the arbitration clauses should be voided as unconscionable. Here, they had more success. The Supreme Court found the clauses unenforceable because they were contrary to public policy; unconscionable in their presentation to the patients; and unconscionable in their content. The trial courts that found otherwise gave no reasoning for their decisions, the court said, and failed to consider plaintiffs’ arguments. Finally, the court held that it did not believe Congress intended the FAA to apply to pre-injury arbitration contracts, and directed trial courts to find the arbitration clause unenforceable.

As a Philadelphia injury lawyer, I am pleased to see this issue being addressed by more and more state high courts. West Virginia rulings do not apply in Pennsylvania, of course, but this ruling touches on federal preemption, which is an issue affecting every U.S. state. Thus, this decision and others like it from other states can provide a guide for our courts when they consider mandatory nursing home arbitration contracts. As the court wrote, nursing home contracts are often signed under stress, and lock patients in to legalities they may not fully understand. By squeezing nursing home patients and their families for this kind of concession, the homes put themselves in a position to allow all kinds of Pennsylvania nursing home abuse without accountability — and that’s bad for society’s most vulnerable people.

If someone in your family was injured or sickened by negligence at a nursing home, don’t wait to call the Philadelphia medical malpractice lawyers at Rosenbaum & Associates. For a free, confidential case evaluation, send us an email or call 1-800-7-LEGAL-7 today.

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