Should courts treat destroyed embryos as “lost property” or “wrongful death”?

Bill of Health contributors Glenn Cohen and Dov Fox were featured in this week’s news coverage of novel claims related to recent freezer malfunctions at two major fertility clinics. A class-action suit by one Ohio couple who lost their embryos asks the court to afford embryos standing to use and declare that life begins at conception.Friday’s article asks: “Will Fertility Clinic Disaster Redefine Personhood?” From the piece:

Roe v. Wade made it clear that an embryo or fetus is not a person under the protections of constitutional and federal law. Since then, no [Supreme Court] ju[stices] have suggested otherwise, Dov Fox, a law professor at the University of San Diego, told The Daily Beast. That doesn’t mean that wrongful death claims cannot be filed on behalf of a fetus [or that] the fetus has legal standing as a person overall, but wrongful death can be brought on its behalf—”for lack of a better legal fiction,” Fox said.

Fox added that in similar cases dealing with the loss of embryos due to hospital or clinic in the past, the courts decide that an embryo is not a person for the purposes of wrongful death cases. He pointed to two cases where embryos were damaged—one in Arizona in 2005, and one in Illinois in 2008. Both held that the wrongful death statutes do not apply to the loss of an embryo that hasn’t yet been implanted in a womb. Therefore, it would be surprising if the Ohio court ruled differently. “It would fly in the face of all existing legal precedent,” Fox said. Continue reading

Does an Arbitration Clause in a Nursing Home Agreement Preclude Tort Actions Relating to the Resident’s Wrongful Death?

By Alex Stein

Arbitration clauses in nursing home agreements are pretty much standard. Whether such a clause precludes tort actions complaining about the resident’s wrongful death is consequently an important issue.  The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has recently addressed this issue in Taylor v. Extendicare Health Facilities, Inc., 147 A.3d 490 (Pa. 2016). In that case, the resident’s family members sued the nursing home in their individual capacity as derivative victims of the alleged tort (the wrongful death action) and as representatives of the resident’s estate (the survival action). In the wrongful death action, the plaintiffs sought compensation for the emotional harm they sustained from losing their loved one prematurely and possibly for their economic losses as the resident’s dependents (the Court’s decision provides no details on that). The survival suit, on the other hand, focused on the resident’s entitlement to be compensated for pain and suffering and other harms she sustained from the alleged negligence. This entitlement belonged to the resident’s estate rather than her successors as individuals.

The agreement between the resident and the nursing home contained a standard compulsory arbitration provision that covered any resident’s suit against the nursing home. This provision consequently extended to the survival action, but not to the wrongful death suit filed by the nonparties to the agreement. However, under Pennsylvania Rule of Civil Procedure 213(e), wrongful death and survival actions cannot be bifurcated and must be tried together. Based on that rule, the trial court decided that the two actions must be consolidated, and because one of the actions fell outside the scope of the arbitration provision, both actions should go to trial.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturned this decision for failure to account for the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA), as interpreted (inter alia) in Southland Corp. v. Keating, 465 U.S. 1, 3 (1984); Moses H. Cone Mem’l Hosp. v. Mercury Constr. Corp., 460 U.S. 1, 20 (1983); Dean Witter Reynolds, Inc. v. Byrd, 470 U.S. 213, 218 (1985); AT & T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion, 563 U.S. 333, 346 (2011); and KPMG LLP v. Cocchi, 132 S.Ct. 23, 26 (2011).  Continue reading

Medical Malpractice: The New Wave of Constitutional Attacks on Damage Caps

By Alex Stein

About forty-five years ago, tort reforms took off and states have started capping compensation awards for victims of medical malpractice. The plaintiffs bar countered this initiative by raising different constitutional challenges against caps. Those challenges alluded to equal protection, due process, separation of powers, and the general right to a jury trial. Some state courts have rejected those challenges, while other courts have struck the caps down for being unconstitutional. For discussion and the list of representative cases, see Alex Stein, Toward a Theory of Medical Malpractice, 97 Iowa L. Rev. 1201, 1253-54 (2012).

Courts’ decisions in favor and against the caps juxtaposed the victim’s entitlement to remedy against society’s interest in reducing doctors’ compensation burden and cost of liability insurance. Courts that gave precedence to the latter interest did so in the hopes to contain the cost of medical care for patients. The “trickle down” theory underlying these hopes has been questioned on empirical and doctrinal grounds. See Tom Baker, The Medical Malpractice Myth 1-21 (2005) (demonstrating that claims linking the cost of medical care to medical-malpractice liability are empirically unfounded and calling them an “urban legend”) and Stein, id. at 1247-56 (showing that, as a doctrinal matter, doctors can be found responsible for patients’ injuries only in extreme cases and that a rational physician should care more about being identified and reported to the federal databank as a malpractitioner than about how much she will pay if found liable). The Florida Supreme Court has rejected that theory in a recent decision, McCall v. United States, 134 So.3d 894 (Fla. 2014), that relied (inter alia) on Tom Baker’s work. For my discussion of this landmark decision, see here.

For obvious reasons, plaintiffs’ attorneys are loath to depend on such tradeoffs and prefer to base their claims on constitutional rights that are not subject to balancing.  Continue reading

Another Blow to Nursing Home Arbitration Agreements

By Alex Stein

Most, if not all, nursing homes have their residents sign an agreement to arbitrate any dispute or disagreement arising out of or in connection with the care rendered to the resident by the nursing home, including claims by the resident involving, and/or arising out of conduct committed by the nursing home and/or its agents, employees, or others for whom and/or which the nursing home is, may be, or is asserted to be, legally responsible. Such agreements also stipulate that they will apply to and bind any and all persons and/or entities who and/or which may assert a claim on behalf of, or derived through, the resident, including, without limitation, the resident’s legal representative, guardians, heirs, executors, administrators, estate(s), successors and assigns.

Ostensibly, such agreements compel arbitration on the resident’s survivors who claim that the resident died prematurely as a result of the nursing home’s neglect. The Federal Arbitration Act (FAA), as interpreted in AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion, 131 S. Ct. 1740 (2011), seems to support this observation. This Act requires state and federal courts to enforce arbitration agreements similarly to other contracts. Pursuant to this Act, when a resident’s survivor files a wrongful death suit against the nursing home, the court must stay the proceeding and direct the parties to arbitration.

However, a recent decision of the Oklahoma Supreme Court, Boler v. Security Health Care, L.L.C., — P.3d —- (Okla. 2014), has shown that this appearance is misleading.  Continue reading