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A negligence lawsuit against Brookdale Senior Living will proceed after an appellate panel ruled that claims regarding the alligator-related death of a 90-year-old resident at a Charleston, SC, community are not covered by a residential arbitration agreement.

A three-judge South Carolina Court of Appeals panel unanimously affirmed a trial court’s denial of arbitration in a lawsuit alleging that the senior living operator caused the death of Bonnie S. Walker, who was 90 when she died in 2016. The Brookdale Charleston resident’s body was found in an adjacent retention pond, where authorities believe it attracted the attention of an alligator, after Walker went missing.

A spokeswoman for Brookdale told McKnight’s Senior Living that “this was a heartbreaking event, and we still grieve for the residents,” but said the company does not comment on pending litigation.

Brookdale Charleston, now called Brookdale West Ashley, offers assisted living and memory care services.

Walker’s granddaughter, Stephanie Walker Weaver, filed the suit in 2017, maintaining that Brookdale did not sufficiently monitor Walker or begin searching for her soon enough. Walker had a “known history of wandering and sleep walking,” according to the complaint.

Brookdale had sought to dismiss a mental distress claim in the lawsuit and had sought to compel arbitration, arguing that a residential agreement bound family members to the arbitration clause. The trial court denied the motion to dismiss and the motion to compel arbitration, however, and the decision was upheld by the appellate panel.

The panel found that Weaver did not sign the agreement and so was not bound by it. The panel also found that Weaver’s claims applied to ordinary negligence — not medical malpractice — which are not covered by a residency contract.

Kenneth L. Connor of Connor & Connor LLC in Aiken, SC, who represents Weaver, called the panel’s decision “a big win in the arbitration area.”

According to the suit, Weaver participated in a search led by family members and was the one who found Walker’s body. Weaver subsequently experienced “anxiety, worry, disturbance of sleep, resulting in extreme fatigue, loss of quiet enjoyment of normal daily activities, irritability, feelings of dread and fear, feelings of reduced self-worth, shame, isolation and humiliation, impairment of interpersonal relationships, impaired ability to concentrate, and impaired ability to enjoy life,” according to the legal action.

The suit seeks a jury trial and more than $10,000 in damages.

Walker’s son settled a wrongful death suit against Brookdale prior to Weaver filing her claim.

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