As previously discussed, the Wrongful Death statute in Massachusetts allows for the Personal Representative of an Estate to commence an action for damages against a Defendant for his or her negligence which causes death. In the past few years, issues have arisen as to whether such a law suit can commence when the person who has died (the decedent), or their representative, has previously signed an agreement with the Defendant that limits court actions in favor of binding arbitration. The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts has recently had an opportunity to decide this very issue in Johnson v. Kindred Healthcare, Inc., as well as a slew of companion cases.
In the Johnson matter, Dalton Johnson was admitted to a nursing care facility operated by the Defendant organization. Prior to his admission at the nursing facility, he had executed a health care proxy which authorized his wife to act as his “health care agent” relating to “health care decisions.” In her capacity as Health Care Proxy, the wife of Mr. Johnson admitted him into the facility for long term care and treatment. As part of the admission process, she was asked to sign an agreement with the Defendant to submit any disputes that arise between the parties for resolution by mediation and/or arbitration (often referred to as an “arbitration agreement.”) Approximately one year later, Mr. Dalton suffered severe burns and was taken to a hospital where he succumbed to his injuries. The wife of Mr. Dalton brought suit against the Defendant claiming a variety of claims predicated on Wrongful Death.