Arbitration agreement and gavel on a desk.
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The family of an assisted living resident who filed a wrongful death lawsuit is bound by an arbitration agreement signed when the resident moved into the community, the Tennessee Supreme Court has ruled.

The court on Friday upheld an arbitration agreement signed by the family of Granville Williams Jr. as part of the paperwork for his admittance to Azalea Court Senior Living, an assisted living and memory care community in Smyrna, TN. Williams moved into the community on Feb. 29, 2020, and died April 27, 2020.

Williams’s son, James Williams, filed a wrongful death lawsuit in 2021 in the Circuit Court for Rutherford County against Smyrna Residential and Americare Systems, which manage and operate Azalea Court. The lawsuit alleged negligence under the Tennessee Healthcare Liability Act, as well as gross negligence, willful, wanton, reckless, malicious and/or intentional conduct that the suit said resulted in Granville Williams’s death.

The legal action alleges that the senior living community was aware that Williams was at high risk of elopement and that he had experienced injuries and harm, including abuse and neglect, falls and injuries from falls, care delays, severe pain and death. 

Granville Williams Jr. executed a durable power of attorney in 2007 and named his daughter, Karen Sams, as his attorney-in-fact, and he gave her authority to act on his behalf in “all claims and litigation matters” but not to make healthcare decisions. Acting under that power of attorney, Sams signed a voluntary arbitration agreement as part of the Azalea Court admissions process when her father moved into the community.

When the companies sought to compel arbitration, however, James Wiliams argued that he was not bound by the agreement because he was not party to it. A trial court sided with James Williams in August 2021 and its decision was affirmed by the Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Nashville, in 2022. The Tennessee Supreme Court reversed the appellate court decision last week.

The majority opinion, authored by Justice Sarah K. Campbell, reversed the appellate court’s decisions and remanded the case back to the trial court. The opinion stated that signing an optional arbitration agreement is not a “healthcare decision” and gave authority to Sams to sign it. The court further found that claims brought by wrongful death beneficiaries are subject to the same limitations as the decedent’s claim, including any arbitration agreement.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Sharon G. Lee stated that to enforce and compel arbitration in this case, “the majority rewrites a healthcare facility admission contract, disregards the Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care Act, ignores precedent and creates confusion in an important area of the law.”

In another dissenting opinion, Chief Justice Holly Kirby wrote that she agreed with many of the points made in Lee’s dissenting opinion, adding that the majority’s decision leaves the “law so unsettled in an area that touches so many.”

“I am concerned that little will be clear to practitioners or the public in the wake of the majority opinion in this case,” Kirby wrote, adding that the “worst choice is to create two irreconcilable binding decisions and leave it for others to sort out.”

Azalea Court had not responded to a request for comment from McKnight’s Senior Living by the production deadline.