AARP argues that a health care proxy signing a nursing facility admissions contract does not sign away all other rights a resident may have.
Mary Brinson had granted her sister, Anne Coleman, a health care proxy giving Coleman the power to make health care decisions on her behalf. Coleman later admitted her sister to a nursing facility, where she subsequently died. Coleman sued the facility for wrongful death. The facility asked the court to dismiss the proceedings based on a clause in the admission contract, signed by Coleman on her sister’s behalf, which sent all disputes to arbitration.
Coleman argues that while Brinson may have signed a health care proxy, that was to govern specific medical decisions regarding end-of-life options — not all substantive rights under the law. Giving up the right to bring a legal action was not contemplated in the document. Arbitration is a dispute resolution mechanism originally designed for business-to-business transactions and it does not provide the same public scrutiny, right to a jury trial, right to access evidence, adherence to precedent and other procedural protections lawsuits do; it can also be significantly more expensive. Coleman notes that she did not have her sister’s power of attorney when signing the admission documents, so even if she understood the legal implications of the documents she was signing (which she did not), she did not have the expansive authority to bind her sister’s other legal rights.
A trial court agreed with Coleman and the facility appealed to the state appellate court. The case was later transferred to the state Supreme Court. AARP Foundation Litigation attorneys filed AARP’s friend-of-the-court brief in conjunction with the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys, arguing that signing a health care proxy was never intended to, and should not, equate with signing over all contractual and legal rights. The brief reviews decisions from other states considering the same questions, that separate out the two decision-making roles, that require the legislature to make it clear if it intends to allow health care powers of attorney or proxies to encompass other decision-making roles. Finally, the brief notes the vulnerability of nursing facility residents and the numerous laws enacted to protect their rights and permit private enforcement.
What’s at Stake
Government agencies do not have the funding or manpower to regulate nursing facilities, and the industry has a shocking and well-documented history of neglect, abuse and inadequate care. Nursing facility residents and their families need all the tools available to ensure care and the industry needs to be aware that it will be held liable — by private parties if not the government — for failure to provide adequate care.
Coleman v. Mariner Health Care is before the Supreme Court of South Carolina.