An appellate court judge has ruled that a plaintiff who filed a wrongful death case on behalf of her mother was not bound by an arbitration agreement she had signed in her role as power of attorney. 

The late Friday decision, delivered by Justice Eugene Doherty of the Appellate Court of Illinois Fourth District, partially overruled a lower court that sided with providers and sent a wrongful death case to arbitration instead of through the courts. 

The ruling could become a cause of concern for state nursing homes, legal experts told McKnight’s Long-Term Care News Monday. 

In September 2019, plaintiff Luann Mikoff’s mother, Bonnie Stone, was admitted to Jerseyville Manor, a skilled nursing facility in Jerseyville, IL. As Stone’s power of attorney, Mikoff signed admissions documents, including an arbitration agreement, according to the decision. 

Stone died in August 2020 after being hospitalized with COVID-19. Mikoff filed a lawsuit in July 2022, citing the Wrongful Death Act and the Survival Act, alleging negligence and “wanton misconduct” had contributed to Stone’s death.  

Defendants Jerseyville Manor and management company Unlimited Development filed a motion to compel arbitration two months later, citing the agreement signed by Mikoff on Stone’s behalf. 

A Jersey County circuit court initially sided with the nursing home and sent the case to arbitration. On appeal, however, the court ruled that Mikoff’s signature on her mother’s behalf did not constitute her own consent to the arbitration agreement. 

“While it is true that [Mikoff] signed the admission and arbitration agreements, she did so only in a representative capacity for [Stone],” the court wrote. “There is nothing in the record to show that any arbitration agreement was ever formed between defendants and decedent’s next of kin in an individual capacity.”

Writing partially in dissent of the court’s decision, Presiding Justice John Turner said, “[Mikoff] does not dispute the arbitration agreement contains a broad delegation clause. As such, all matters of arbitrability, including what claims are bound by the arbitration agreement… are questions for the arbitrator to decide.”

Justice Thomas Harris wrote in concurrence with the majority decision.

Jerseyville Manor did not respond to McKnight’s request for comment Monday.

Troubling outlook for providers

The decision should prompt Illinois nursing homes to exercise more caution in the admissions process, said Ice Miller attorneys Angela Rinehart and Matthew Kelly.

“The main takeaway we have from this case is that it emphasizes the importance of thorough and careful admissions policies,” they wrote, “not only with regard to admissions contract drafting, but also identifying who has proper authority to execute contracts and who will be bound by them.”

Arbitration agreements have been contentious in cases like Mikoff’s following the COVID-19 pandemic. Some state courts have found in facilities’ favor. These rulings asserted that rights waived by residents in arbitration agreements are also waived by those residents’ relatives. 

The Illinois case points in the other direction, which could potentially signal trouble for any nursing home caught in a similar legal battle.

“The [decision] leaves doubt as to whether there is any workable way for a nursing home to compel arbitration of wrongful death claims in Illinois,” Rinehart and Kelly told McKnight’s. “Of course, no resident is filing their own wrongful death suit, so ensuring arbitration of these claims will be tricky unless you can get every possible next of kin to sign an arbitration agreement.  While far from a complete victory for the plaintiff, the opinion does set out a pretty clear roadmap for avoiding pitfalls in similar claims, so this is likely not the last we see of this.”

This article has been updated to include a partially dissenting opinion, as well as to correct misstatements including the justices involved in the case and the establishment of a legal precedent.