Agreement declared void in dementia case

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A U.S. Court of Appeals has agreed that an arbitration agreement signed by a nursing home resident with dementia is void.

In an Oct. 27 unpublished decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit agreed with a U.S. District Count in the Middle District of Florida 2010 decision. The lower court had determined Vera Gilmore was not competent when she signed a voluntary agreement for arbitration upon entering the Life Care Center of Estero in 2007. When she later died from a fall, her son, Ronald Gilmore, sued Life Care Centers of America Inc. for negligence.

Arbitration agreements are meant to protect nursing homes from litigation, and are often enforceable in Florida. However, arbitration agreements can be put aside, per state law, if there is a “preponderance of evidence” that the person who signed the agreement lacked the mental capacity to understand the contract. 

A Life Care psychologist said after an evaluation that Vera Gilmore was “capable of making medical decisions.” However, Ronald Gilmore testified that his 87-year-old mother suffered from hallucinations. When she had been in a different facility a month previously, he had signed all paperwork verifying that she was deemed incapable of understanding.

“At the time his mother was admitted to the Life Care facility, she was in and out of lucidity, had hallucinations, and could not understand anything very complex,” according to the appeals court decision. Additionally, a nurse's intake evaluation for Vera Gilmore upon her arrival showed that the nurse originally checked that Gilmore's cognitive status was “oriented,” but then crossed that out.

The decision follows some other state courts weighing arbitration agreements. The Supreme Court of West Virginia ruled this year that nursing homes cannot use the agreements to combat lawsuits related to resident care.