Protect Nursing Home Residents, Avoid Arbitration Agreements

When senior citizens are no longer able to safely live on their own and require additional medical assistance, many families turn to nursing homes to protect their loved ones. As anyone who has been in this difficult position knows, the admissions process at most nursing homes involves a large amount of paperwork. Increasingly, reports have shown that one of the documents tucked into the stack that must be signed upon admission is an arbitration agreement. Often, families or those responsible for the elderly person's care sign the document without knowing or understanding what they are signing.

An arbitration agreement is a document that provides that the parties involved agree to resolve legal disputes in front of an impartial third party, rather than entering the court system. A professional arbitrator is then tasked with listening to both sides and making a decision, which, in some cases, is binding. Unless thrown out in court, mandatory arbitration agreements prevent injured parties from filing a lawsuit - for personal injuries or wrongful death - in court.

As the American population ages, a corresponding rise in the number of nursing home residents is expected. Consequently, the number of seniors affected by this practice will likely increase.

Dangers of Signing Arbitration Agreements with Nursing Homes

While at first glance, signing an arbitration agreement might not seem like a significant decision, in the event the nursing home's actions are negligent, abusive or neglectful, the agreement can have considerable consequences. Generally, consumer advocates believe that agreeing to arbitrate with a nursing home is not in the resident's best interest.

For one thing, agreeing to arbitrate can be a costly endeavor. Typically, both parties involved in arbitration are required to pay a portion of the arbitrator's fee. Professional arbitrators can earn hundreds of dollars per hour. If the case is complicated and requires a significant amount of testimony, this figure can quickly become unmanageable. In comparison, if the case is brought before a court of law, taxes cover the judge's salary, rather than the parties involved in the case.

In addition, when parties agree to arbitrate, the hearings are private. Typically, the transcript and documents involved in the arbitration will also be kept confidential, hiding the nursing home's substandard care from the public. If a lawsuit were filed, however, the case would be heard in a public courtroom. Consequently, the nursing home would be held responsible for its actions in view of the public, which could affect not only how it operates in the future but how other nursing homes care for their residents, as well.

Finally, even if the arbitrator finds on behalf of the injured nursing home resident, the monetary award will likely be less than what would have been awarded in a courtroom. According to a study conducted by Aon Global Risk Consulting, nursing home residents were more likely not to be awarded any damages or a smaller amount if they had signed an arbitration agreement.

The study found that 8.5 percent of claims made by nursing home residents who had signed arbitration agreements resulted in awards over $250,000. Comparatively, 12 percent of residents who had not signed arbitration agreements received such large awards.

Conversely, 30 percent of claims by those who had signed arbitration agreements resulted in no monetary award - compared to only 19 percent of claims for those who had not signed agreements.

Therefore, when deciding to place a loved one in a long-term care facility, it is imperative to be vigilant when reviewing admissions paperwork, to ensure the legal rights of the nursing home resident are not compromised or limited.

Nursing Homes Should Be Held Accountable

Generally, it is best not to sign an arbitration agreement, particularly before consulting with an attorney. If you have recently signed an arbitration agreement, it is likely the agreement provides for a 30-day period, during which time you can "opt out."

If no such provision exists or the time period has already lapsed, a skilled personal injury attorney can advocate on your behalf to have the agreement thrown out. If your loved one has been injured by a nursing home's substandard care, consulting with a Pittsburgh personal injury attorney will ensure just compensation is received.