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United Health Services of Georgia, Inc. v. Norton

Supreme Court of Georgia

March 6, 2017

NORTON et al.

          MELTON, Presiding Justice.

         Bernard Norton, by and through Kim Norton, brought a wrongful death action against a number of defendants[1] who were affiliated with a nursing home in which his wife, Lola Norton, died. Bernard claimed that negligent treatment caused Lola's death. The defendants filed a motion to dismiss the complaint or, alternatively, to stay the proceedings and compel arbitration of all claims in accordance with an agreement entered into by Lola at the time she was admitted to the nursing home. The trial court granted the motion to stay and compel arbitration, and Bernard appealed, contending that, as a wrongful death beneficiary, he could not be bound to Lola's arbitration agreement. In Norton v. United Health Services of Georgia, Inc., 336 Ga.App. 51 (783 S.E.2d 437) (2016), the Court of Appeals reversed the trial court and found that Lola's beneficiaries were not required to arbitrate their wrongful death claims against the defendants. We thereafter granted certiorari to determine whether an arbitration agreement governed by the Federal Arbitration Act ("FAA") and entered into by a decedent and/or her power of attorney, which binds the decedent and her estate to arbitration, is also enforceable against the decedent's beneficiaries in a wrongful death action. We find that such an arbitration agreement does bind the decedent's beneficiaries with respect to their wrongful death claims, and, accordingly, reverse the Court of Appeals.

1. As set forth by the Court of Appeals in the opinion below,
[t]he underlying facts are undisputed for purposes of this appeal. From April 25, 2013, until her death on April 18, 2014, Lola was a resident of PruittHealth-Toccoa, a facility owned, operated, and managed by defendants. . . .
At the time of Lola's admission to the facility, Kim, as general power of attorney for Lola, signed an arbitration agreement, which states that claims subject to arbitration include
[a]ny and all claims or controversies arising out of or in any way relating to ... the Patient/Resident's stay at, or the care or services provided by, the Healthcare center, or any acts or omissions in connection with such care or services ... whether sounding in breach of contract, tort, or breach of statutory or regulatory duties.

         The parties also expressly agreed that the arbitration agreement would apply to wrongful death beneficiaries:

Parties. This Agreement shall inure to the benefit of and bind the Patient/Resident and the Healthcare Center, their successors, assigns, and intended and incidental beneficiaries.... The term "Patient/Resident" shall include the Patient/Resident, his or her guardian, attorney-in-fact, agent, sponsor, representative, or any person whose claim is derived through or on behalf of the Patient/Resident, including, in addition to those already listed in this Paragraph, any parent, spouse, child, executor, administrator, heir, or survivor entitled to bring a wrongful death claim.

Id. at 51-53. This agreement binds Bernard and any other of Lola's wrongful death beneficiaries and requires them to arbitrate their claims.

         2. This case is controlled by the longstanding precedent that a wrongful death action is wholly derivative of a decedent's right of action. In Southern Bell Telephone & Telegraph Co. v. Cassin, 111 Ga. 575 (36 SE 881) (1900), we considered the effect of a settlement agreement signed by a decedent on claims brought by his beneficiaries after his death. We held: "An action for the homicide of a husband or father, alleged to have been occasioned by a physical injury, is not maintainable when it appears that he, while in life, voluntarily settled with the wrongdoer therefor, and discharged the latter from all liability for the damages resulting therefrom." In Spradlin v. Georgia Ry. & Elec. Co., 139 Ga. 575 (77 SE 799) (1913), we explained that the Cassin opinion

may be summarized in the following quotation from Tiffany on Death by Wrongful Act, § 124: "If the deceased, in his lifetime, has done anything that would operate as a bar to a recovery by him of damages for the personal injury, this will operate equally as a bar in an action by his personal representatives for his death. Thus, a release by the party injured of his right of action, or a recovery of damages by him for the injury, is a complete defense in the statutory action."[2]

         The derivative nature of wrongful death actions has been recognized repeatedly, and it has previously been held that settlements, see, e.g., Cassin, supra, and waivers, see, e.g., Currid v. DeKalb State Court Probation Dept., 285 Ga. 184 (674 S.E.2d 894) (2009), made by decedents have bound their beneficiaries, despite the fact that the beneficiaries were not parties to the agreements in question.[3]

         The law is also settled that, because wrongful death claims are wholly derivative, all defenses which could have been made against a decedent also bind the beneficiaries when they pursue a wrongful death claim.

Although it is true that the action created by the wrongful death statute is different from the cause of action which the decedent would have possessed had he lived, any defense which would have been good against the decedent is good against his representatives in a wrongful death action. Thus, no recovery could be had unless the deceased in his lifetime could have maintained an action for damages for the injury to him, and ...

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