Upon receiving direction from the Florida Supreme Court to reverse an earlier ruling upholding an arbitration agreement in a medical malpractice case, Florida’s First District Court of Appeal did just that, finding the defendant had not offered just cause as to why the agreement should be upheld.
The ruling in Brown v. North Florida Surgeons P.A. is important in that it underscores the fact that arbitration agreements between patients and doctors often reflect an imbalance of power, which could result in their being found unconscionable.
Our West Palm Beach medical malpractice lawyers know the key is showing the patient either didn’t sign the document knowingly or voluntarily. In many situations, patients are made to believe they have no choice but to sign, or be refused treatment. In other cases, the agreements are lumped in with boilerplate admissions paperwork, with the patient receiving no indication these are legal documents in which they are forfeiting their right to a jury trial, should something go wrong.
Doctors prefer arbitration over a court proceeding for several reasons, not the least of which are reduced time and money, and also that the conclusions are generally private. That means even if the arbitrator finds fault with the medical care, that information won’t be public knowledge. Further, the damages awarded by an arbitrator tend to be far less than what is awarded by a jury.
In the Brown case, plaintiff sought review by the state supreme court, after the appellate court affirmed the trial court’s order compelling arbitration in his medical malpractice claim. The state supreme court, citing the decision in Franks v. Bowers, overruled the previous decision in Brown, and remanded the case for further proceedings.
In the Franks case, the plaintiff alleged wrongful death and medical malpractice, and challenged the defense motion to compel an arbitration agreement pursuant to the doctor-patient agreement. (The defendant in this case was the same one as in the Brown case, and the arbitration agreement used in both cases was virtually the same.)
The plaintiff argued the contractual agreement was misconstrued, ran contrary to public policy, and was unconscionable.
Upon review in 2013, the Florida Supreme Court agreed, finding it void as to public policy. The court indicated it does not take lightly the freedom of contract, but found the Financial Agreement “blatantly contravenes the intent provided by Florida Legislature.” Specifically, a limitation of damages would have significantly reduced the damages to which the plaintiff was entitled, and therefore ran contrary to the public good.
Because the financial agreement could not be severed from the rest of the agreement, the court held the entire agreement was void.
Back to the Brown case, involving the same defendant and virtually the same contract, the appellate court asked the defendant to show cause why the motion to compel arbitration should be upheld, despite the state supreme court’s ruling. However, both sides agreed the reversal was required because the arbitration clause at issue was virtually the same.
This does not meant the plaintiff has won the case. What it means is that he has won the right to have the case be heard at trial.
Given the unique relationship between a doctor and patient, there is a strong chance that an arbitration agreement in medical malpractice cases may be unenforceable. Always consult with an experienced medical malpractice lawyer before submitting to the arbitration process to settle claims.
For information on filing a medical malpractice claim in West Palm Beach, contact the Hollander Law Firm at 888-751-7777 for a free and confidential consultation. There is no fee unless we win.
Brown v. North Florida Surgeons P.A. , July 28, 2014, Florida’s First District Court of Appeal
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