Arbitration agreements have been used by California healthcare providers for almost eighty years as an alternative to the civil court litigation system. Arbitration can sometimes resolve medical malpractice disputes faster and at less cost than jury trials. The role of arbitration agreements in wrongful death cases has just expanded.

While arbitration agreements have been deemed binding between physicians and patients, the law has been unsettled as to whether a patient’s arbitration agreement could force the patient’s spouse and/or heirs, who did not sign the arbitration agreement, into arbitration in a wrongful death case. Courts have struggled with this issue for various reasons. On the one hand, courts have found that a person cannot be compelled to arbitrate a dispute in which he or she did not agree to arbitrate. On the other hand, courts have ruled that adult patients can bind their minor children to arbitration clauses.

The recent California Supreme Court case of Ruiz v. Podolsky (2010) 50 Cal.4th 838 settled the matter by determining that heirs in a wrongful death action can be bound to arbitration agreements they did not sign. In reaching that decision the court found that allowing patients who signed arbitration agreements to bind their heirs in wrongful death actions did not violate the heirs’ state constitutional right to a jury trial. The court reasoned that even though the patient’s spouse and adult children had not consented to the arbitration, the agreement could be enforced because a contrary holding would defeat the physician’s reasonable contractual expectations. The court also noted that requiring a patient’s heirs to sign arbitration agreements would infringe upon a patient’s privacy rights under the California Constitution.

Of course, to bind a patient’s wife and/or heirs to arbitration of a wrongful death cause of action, the underlying arbitration agreement must be valid. In implementing a contractual arbitration agreement, the agreement must comply with specific statutory requirements regarding medical arbitration contracts and contain sufficient language to bind the spouse and/or heirs to arbitration.  Inclusion of appropriate specific language is not enough. Statutory requirements determine where the language must be in an arbitration agreement, and what size/type print must be utilized in the arbitration agreement. Further, the arbitration agreement should contain language that clearly identifies that the agreement is binding on all parties whose claims might arise out of or relate to treatment or service provided by the health care professional, including any spouse or heirs of the patient and any children, as well as specifically providing for arbitration of wrongful death and loss of consortium claims.

If you anticipate implementing arbitration agreements with your patients, or if you already have an arbitration agreement, it may be helpful to have the agreement reviewed by a contract/medical malpractice attorney to ensure that the agreement meets statutory requirements and that it binds spouses and heirs in wrongful death causes of action.

For further information on this topic, please contact us at (619) 238-1712.