Family wins legal victory in battle over right to sue a senior home

Published 7:25 am Wednesday, April 12, 2017

By Chris Serres

Star Minneapolis Tribune

Minnesotans looking to hold senior homes accountable for abuse and neglect won a legal victory after a district judge threw out a forced arbitration clause that would have prohibited a family from suing in court.

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In a potentially far-reaching decision, Anoka County Judge Sean Gibbs recently upheld the right of a family to sue an assisted-living facility in court over the sudden death of an 89-year-old man, Gerald Seeger, who died in 2015 of complications related to a common hernia. The facility, Lighthouse of Columbia Heights, had argued in court that, despite the man’s death, the family had forfeited the right to a jury trial by signing an arbitration agreement at the time of Seeger’s admission.

Legal experts say the decision is among the first of its kind in Minnesota, and could embolden more residents to challenge densely worded clauses that require residents to settle disputes through a secretive arbitration process rather than through a public court proceeding.

“This is not just a victory for me, but it’s a victory for everyone who has ever felt silenced by these agreements,” said Joan Maurer, Seeger’s daughter, who filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against Lighthouse after state investigators found the facility failed to provide timely medical care. “This shows that they can’t just shove me into a room with an arbitrator, where one person decides the value of my father’s life in secret.”

The decision comes as growing numbers of senior home residents and their relatives challenge mandatory arbitration clauses, which are frequently included in the dense paperwork that people sign upon admission to long-term care facilities. The clauses require people to forfeit their right to a court hearing and, instead, lock residents into a private process for resolving claims. Even in cases of neglect and death, senior homes use the clauses to prevent residents and their families from pursuing lawsuits.

A spokesman for Lighthouse’s Eden Prairie-based parent company, New Perspective Senior Living, did not return calls seeking comment.

Late last year, the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) issued a breakthrough rule barring the 15,000 long-term care facilities that receive Medicare and Medicaid funds from requiring that residents enter into arbitration before a dispute arises, known as “pre-dispute” arbitration. While the CMS rule has been blocked in court, the government’s case has emboldened more consumer attorneys to challenge such clauses, particularly when they are poorly explained or families feel pressured to sign them