A nursing home can’t compel the adult child of a deceased resident into arbitration, even though the son signed admissions paperwork that included an arbitration agreement, the Arkansas Court of Appeals ruled last week.

The ruling against Faulkner-Progressive Eldercare Services Inc., operating as Conway Healthcare and Rehabilitation Center, is an unusual one, the court conceded. In its opinion, a three-judge panel noted there is a “a national policy favoring arbitration when the parties contract for that mode of dispute resolution.”

But the judges in this case ruled in favor of survivor Stephen Carson, saying he had not signed an arbitration agreement in his individual capacity but as a representative for his father, Robert, only.

Robert Carson lived at Conway, a 105-bed facility, from Oct. 30, 2015, through Nov. 9, 2017. After Robert’s death, Stephen Carson sued for wrongful death, a claim Faulkner-Progressive denied and then tried to move to arbitration in 2021. 

Stephen Carson, in earlier court documents, argued that his actions on his father’s behalf did not constitute a valid arbitration agreement between him and Conway Healthcare “because the documents lacked the essential elements of mutual agreement and mutual obligation.” He claimed that even his father would not have been bound to the agreement because, while Robert needed help signing, his son did not have the legal power or authority to do so.

Signing as a representative, Carson also argued, also meant there was no contract between him and the facility. The Court of Appeals found no evidence to the contrary.

Facility paperwork allowed for adult children of residents to sign on behalf of parents, even if they did not have documents proving they had the resident’s consent to do so.

The judges agreed with a lower court ruling that Stephen, who held no power of attorney or guardianship on his father’s behalf, was not a third-party beneficiary of the agreement. The March 15 ruling could allow Carson’s nearly 4-year-old suit to proceed to trial. It was unclear whether Conway had any further appeal options.

A call seeking reaction from facility representatives Monday was addressed by the Arkansas Health Care Association, which said only that Conway’s administrator is working with legal counsel to review the ruling and “can’t comment further at this time on specifics.”

Disputes over children signing for parents are long-standing in the arbitration arena. Legal experts typically advise that nursing homes confirm third-party signatories have the authority to bind a resident to the agreement.