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West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals Rules Against the Enforceability of Arbitration Agreements Signed by Health Care Surrogates

Tuesday, February, 5, 2013

According to a recent ruling by the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, a health care surrogate does not have the legal authority to sign an arbitration agreement.  This ruling stems from a 2009 case involving a woman, Beulah Wyatt, who was determined by her doctor to be incapacitated and therefore unable to make sound medical decisions regarding her care.  Due to this determination, the doctor appointed Nancy Belcher, Ms. Wyatt’s daughter, as the health care surrogate who would make medical decisions regarding her mother’s care. 


Unable to care for her mother in her own home, Ms. Belcher placed her mother under the care of the McDowell Nursing & Rehabilitation Center.  When signing the paperwork required by the facility, Ms. Belcher signed an arbitration agreement, agreeing to resolve any legal dispute through arbitration versus filing a claim with the courts. 


However, Lelia Gresham Baker, Ms. Wyatt’s other daughter, believed that the pressure sores, dehydration and malnutrition her mother suffered at the McDowell Nursing & Rehabilitation Center were the direct cause of her death.  With this belief, in 2011, she filed a suit against the center alleging wrongful death—a suit which the center later filed a motion against to have dismissed due to the arbitration agreement signed by Ms. Belcher.  


At that point, a judge from the Kanawha County Circuit Court denied the motion for dismissal and stated that Ms. Baker’s right to file a claim and be heard by a judge and jury was a constitutional one.  This ruling was also seconded by a lower court, who also determined that the arbitration agreement was unenforceable. 


The most recent ruling on this case regarding the unenforceability of an arbitration agreement signed by a health care surrogate was made by Justice Robin Davis, after a writ of prohibition had been made by several entities, including the McDowell Nursing & Rehabilitation Center.  According to Justice Davis, “We agree with respondents that the arbitration agreement was not a health care decision and thus Ms. Belcher did not have the authority as a health care surrogate to sign such agreement.  From both the statutory pronouncements defining and clarifying the scope of a health care surrogate's authority and the actual form used by physicians to select a health care surrogate, it is clear that a decision to arbitrate disputes regarding care provided by a nursing home to an incapacitated person is not within the ambit of a health care surrogate's authority.”