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The Dangers of Hospital Paperwork: Navigating Arbitration of Medical Malpractice Claims

Upon arriving at the hospital during a medical emergency, we are, all too often, confronted with a veritable mountain of paperwork. At a time when the well-being of our loved ones (not the niceties of medical billing) are at the forefront of our minds, hospital administrators ask us to sign forms that we scarcely have time to read. Many people either sign these forms as a matter of course—without bothering to examine the fine print—or consent to their unbalanced terms out of a desire to ensure that our loved ones receive prompt and adequate medical care. In reality, however, the fine print on these forms may contain a waiver of important rights provided by the Florida Constitution. If anything goes wrong during the medical procedure—such as malpractice by a surgeon or treating physician—you may be unknowingly relinquishing certain rights to recover against him or her (or the hospital) by signing these forms. For example, the form may contain an arbitration clause, forcing you to bring your grievances with the doctor or hospital to arbitration, rather than having access to the courts.

Fortunately, Florida’s courts may view these sorts of agreements with suspicion, and there are circumstances under which these waivers may not be enforced. Amid this sea of paperwork, knowing your rights—and navigating the complex legal landscape concerning arbitration—is vitally important.

A Recent Example

In a decision in the case of Franks v. Bowers, issued in June of 2013, the Supreme Court of Florida weighed in on the question of which waivers in a form signed at a hospital could, in fact, be enforced.

The facts of this case are somewhat harrowing. While Mr. Franks, the plaintiff, was undergoing surgery, one of the operating doctors inadvertently lacerated one of his internal veins. Mr. Franks did not notice the injury until later, when he found himself in pain, and his wife rushed him to the emergency room. Mr. Franks died of his injuries. When Mrs. Franks sued the hospital for medical malpractice leading to the wrongful death of her husband, however, she was told that her husband had signed a form agreeing both: (1) that their dispute would have to be taken to arbitration; and (2) their recovery in that arbitration would be limited to $250,000 (plus their actual expenses).

The Florida trial court found that the contract with the hospital was enforceable, and when Mrs. Franks appealed to the Florida Court of Appeals (the intermediate appellate court of Florida), it agreed with the trial court, ruling that her claim had to go to arbitration. Undeterred in search for justice for her husband, Mrs. Franks appealed again to the Supreme Court of Florida, which found that the limitation on damages was inconsistent with Florida’s public policy.

Because the agreement tried to restrict Mrs. Franks’ recovery to less than the amount allowed in arbitration under Florida law—which is $1,000,000—the Court concluded that it was inconsistent with Florida’s public policy concerning arbitration. Further, the Court found that there was no way to sever the limit on arbitration damages from the rest of the contract. “[A] contractual provision,” the Court said, “that contravenes legislative intent in a way that is clearly injurious to the public good violates public policy and is thus unenforceable.” The Court therefore concluded that the agreement was unenforceable, and that Mrs. Franks should have her day in court.

Her victory would not have been possible without the guidance of intelligent counsel, who saw her case through every stage of appeal and got her access to the financial compensation she deserved. The medical malpractice lawyers at Gary Roberts & Associates can help ensure that you, too, get a fair hearing and fair compensation for your suffering.

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