|Scott Barrow’s reflection in a portrait of his mother, Elizabeth Barrow, who was killed at a nursing home in 2009|
A month later, in September 2009, Mrs. Barrow was found dead at a local nursing home, strangled and suffocated, with a plastic shopping bag over her head. The killer, the police said, was her 97-year-old roommate.
Workers at the nursing home, Brandon Woods in South Dartmouth, Mass., had months earlier described the roommate in patient files as being “at risk to harm herself or others.”
After a police inquiry, the roommate — despite her age and dementia — was charged with murder.
The authorities did not focus on the nursing home, though. Brandon Woods claims that, except for some minor arguments, the two women got along nicely. When the roommate was deemed unfit to stand trial and committed to a state hospital, the sensational case that shocked this corner of New England essentially disappeared.
More than six years after the killing, Mrs. Barrow’s only son, Scott, is still trying to hold the nursing home accountable. “The woman had a history of problems,” Mr. Barrow said of the roommate in an interview this month. “She should not have been living in that room with my mother.”
Mr. Barrow was barred from taking Brandon Woods to court in 2010 because his mother’s contract with the nursing home contained a clause that forced any dispute, even one over wrongful death, into private arbitration.
He has been trying ever since to get back to court, and next month he will finally get that chance. A Massachusetts state court is scheduled to hear Mr. Barrow’s case against the home, which has evolved into much more than a lawsuit about one woman’s death. It has become a crucial test of a legal strategy to prevent nursing homes across the country from requiring their residents to go to arbitration, where there is no judge or jury and the proceedings are hidden from public scrutiny.
Arbitration clauses have proliferated over the last 10 years as companies have added them to tens of millions of contracts for things as diverse as cellphone service, credit cards and student loans.
Nursing homes in particular have embraced the clauses, which are often buried in complex contracts that are difficult to navigate, especially for elderly people with dwindling mental acuity or their relatives, who can be emotionally vulnerable when admitting a parent to a home.
State regulators are concerned because the secretive nature of arbitration can obscure patterns of wrongdoing from prospective residents and their families. Recently, officials in 16 states and the District of Columbia urged the federal government to deny Medicaid and Medicare money to nursing homes that use the clauses. Between 2010 and 2014, hundreds of cases of elder abuse, neglect and wrongful death ended up in arbitration, according to an examination by The New York Times of 25,000 arbitration records and interviews with arbitrators, judges and plaintiffs.
Judges have consistently upheld the clauses, The Times found, regardless of whether the people signing them understood what they were forfeiting. It is the most basic principle of contract law: Once a contract is signed, judges have ruled, it is legally binding.
Mr. Barrow’s case is pivotal because, with the help of his lawyers, he has overcome an arbitration clause by using the fundamentals of contract law to fight back.
As is often the case when elderly people are admitted to nursing homes, Mr. Barrow signed the admissions paperwork containing the arbitration clause on his mother’s behalf.
Although his mother had designated Mr. Barrow as her health care proxy — someone who was authorized to make decisions about her medical treatment — his lawyers argued that he did not have the authority to bind his mother to arbitration. In 2014, a judge ruled in his favor. (Continue)
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Pivotal Nursing Home Suit Raises a Simple Question: Who Signed the Contract?