Estate of DeCamacho v. La Solana (CA2 1/14/14)

The court holds that a wrongful-death claim is not subject to an arbitration agreement signed by the decedent.

Mrs. DeCamacho died in a nursing home. Her estate and beneficiaries sued it. But the admission documents contained an arbitration agreement. The trial court ordered arbitration; the estate appealed.

It first made some arguments about the validity of the contract that are mostly too silly to bother with (e.g., it wasn’t valid because when it was signed somebody forgot to fill in the date). Presumably the estate knew these were throw-aways (though in that case it should have thrown them away before wasting appeal time and money on them).

The arbitration agreement applied, according to the court, to claims that “originate from the rights of DeCamacho.” The estate argued that its wrongful-death and APSA claims didn’t.

As to the APSA it loses. “The estate’s right to recovery under APSA is protected only if ‘the incapacitated or vulnerable adult could have brought the claim had he or she been alive.’” The claim is therefore derivative of the vulnerable adult’s.

Wrongful-death claims, however, are not derivative (because our Supreme Court once said so in passing – Huebner (1973), which this opinion cites – though it apparently has never really analyzed the question). La Solana argued that since under 12-211 a wrongful-death claim can’t be brought unless the decedent would have had a claim, it is subject to arbitration if the decedent’s claim would have been. If that sounds like the APSA analysis to you, it doesn’t to the court. The court says that the statute’s language “is merely descriptive of the nature of the wrong.” The nursing home also contended that the beneficiaries of the estate were third-party beneficiaries of the admission contract. The court holds that they are not because they are not seeking benefits under it (unlike the case that La Solana cited, which involved beneficiaries to an insurance contract). So the arbitration agreement does not apply to wrongful death.

The court then spends some time saying that other jurisdictions have come to the same conclusion. As usual, this is pointless. If the agreement covers only derivative clams, and if the wrongful-death claim isn’t derivative, how can what other courts say make any slightest difference? If you’re making a judgment call then the opinions of others can help. But if you’ve decided that the task is to add two and two then you shouldn’t need a consensus. Whether that really was this court’s task we’ll leave to you.

(Link to opinion)