U.S. Supreme Court Asked to Decide Whether Wrongful Death Suits are Subject to Arbitration

The United States Supreme Court was recently asked to determine whether the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) preempts a state law rule that prohibits enforcement of pre-dispute arbitration agreements in certain wrongful death claims. The state law rule at issue prohibits enforcement of arbitration agreements in wrongful claims against wrongful death beneficiaries who did not sign the arbitration agreement.

The appeal arises out of the Pennsylvania Superior Court’s decision in Pisano v. Extendicare Homes, Inc., 2013 Pa. Super. 232 (2013). In Pisano, the decedent’s daughter and power of attorney executed a pre-dispute arbitration agreement upon the decedent’s admission to the defendant’s skilled nursing facility. The agreement was signed solely in her representative capacity as power of attorney. The decedent’s family filed a lawsuit related to the decedent’s care and treatment. At some point during the litigation, the decedent’s power of attorney executed a Disclaimer and Renunciation with respect to any claims from the lawsuit.

The lawsuit asserted both a survival action and a wrongful death claim. In the simplest of terms, the plaintiff in a survival action steps into the shoes of the decedent and brings any claims that the decedent could have brought during his or her life. A wrongful death suit is brought by the decedent’s heirs to compensate the heirs for any damages that they incurred, such as loss of society and comfort.

In the trial court, there was no dispute that the survival action was subject to arbitration. However, the plaintiff asserted that the wrongful death claim was not subject to arbitration, arguing that the wrongful death claim belonged to the beneficiaries and could not be waived by the decedent. The trial court ultimately agreed, leading to an appeal to the Superior Court.

On the facts above, the Pennsylvania Superior Court held that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in determining that a wrongful death claim was not subject to arbitration where the wrongful death beneficiary bringing the suit did not sign the agreement.

This holding was based on a determination that “Pennsylvania’s wrongful death statute creates an independent cause of action distinct from a survival claim that, although derived from the same tortious conduct, is not derivative of the rights of the decedent.” Id. Although a number of other states have addressed the same issue, with mixed results, the Pisano decision was the first guidance from Pennsylvania appellate courts on this issue.

In February, 2014, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court declined to address the issue. Thereafter, the defendant in the underlying action filed a Petition for Writ of Certiorari, asking the United States Supreme Court to review the issue. It remains to be seen whether the Supreme Court will hear the case. The United States Supreme Court recently issued a ruling related to arbitration agreements in the nursing home context in Marmet Health Care Ctr., Inc. v. Brown, 132 S. Ct. 1201 (2012) (per curiam). In Marmet, the Supreme Court confirmed that arbitration agreements signed in the context of nursing home admissions are enforceable under the Federal Arbitration Act, which provides no exceptions for personal injury claims. Notably, however, on April 22, 2013, the United States Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal on the same issue in SSC Odin Operating Co. v. Carter. That request arose out of a ruling in Illinois.