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Is the Document my Elderly Loved One Signed Really Binding?

Unfortunately, there are people who willingly take advantage of the elderly people in our lives. You may discover that an elderly member of your family has signed a document which appears to eliminate the possibility of bringing a claim for injuries they suffered. That was the case in Philadelphia, where the executor of the estate of Richard MacPherson sought to bring an action for the abuse and neglect Richard suffered while a resident at several hospitals and nursing home facilities.

The defendant health care facilities sought to introduce an arbitration agreement signed by Richard that would have forced his executor into arbitration and set the terms of the arbitration instead of being allowed to file a complaint in Common Pleas Court. The agreement Richard had signed required, among other things, that whoever lose in arbitration pay attorneys’ fees and costs, arbitration costs be divided equally, there be no jury trial and that there be a very limited right to appeal the arbitration decision.

The defendants relied on a case called Williams v. Penn Center Rehabilitation and Care, when they claimed that the executor could not file a case and must comply with the terms of the arbitration agreement. There, Mr. Williams testified during a deposition and stated that he understood the process and knew what he was signing when he signed it. In Richard’s case, however, he had lost more than twenty pounds in a matter of two months. He was incontinent and entirely reliant on facility staff. His body was covered in blisters, scar wounds, necrotic tissue and lesions. Richard also suffered from various medical maladies including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, congestive heart failure, depression, Hepatitis C, diabetes and substance abuse. Richard had passed away before this case was filed and therefore could not testify at a deposition regarding his understanding of the arbitration agreement he had signed. Further, defendants’ representative who had presented the paperwork to him had no recollection of her conversation with Richard.

Agreements are found to be “procedurally unconscionable” and therefore void when there is a lack of meaningful choice by the weaker party in accepting the terms of the agreement. In finding that this agreement was indeed unconscionable and void the Court here relied on the fact that Richard had no ability to negotiate the terms of the agreement. He signed the agreement on the same day it was presented to him and would not have had an opportunity to review it or discuss it with an attorney or others.

Therefore, due to factors such as the degree of Richard’s illness, the fact that the agreement strongly favored the defendants, the inability to obtain testimony from Richard regarding his understanding of the agreement and Richard’s inability to negotiate the terms of the contract because of how quickly it was presented and signed, the Court found that the agreement was void and allowed the executor to move forward with his case. Depending on the circumstances surrounding an elderly person’s signing of a document it might not actually be binding.

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