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Arbitration agreement doesn't bar widow's tort claim, Utah court rules.

A woman whose husband committed suicide after taking antidepressants can pursue a wrongful death claim against the doctor who prescribed them even though the husband had signed a contract agreeing to settle any issues with his doctor in arbitration, the Utah Supreme Court has ruled. (Bybee v. Abdulla, 2008 WL 2245725 (Utah June 3, 2008).)

Alan Abdulla prescribed antidepressant medication to treat Mark Bybee's depression. After Abdulla renewed the prescription, increasing the dose, Bybee committed suicide. Bybee's widow, Lisa, sued Abdulla for her husband's wrongful death, claiming the doctor was not experienced in diagnosing or treating depression.

Abdulla moved to compel arbitration, arguing that Mark had signed a patient agreement to arbitrate "all disputes and claims for damages of any kind of injuries and losses arising from medical care rendered." The doctor cited a section of the Utah Code that provided that an arbitration agreement could apply to "third parties whose claims arise solely out of the injury sustained by the patient who signed the agreement."

But Bybee argued that the section at issue was not in effect when her claim arose, so she should not be forced to abide by a contract she had not signed. She also claimed that the new section did not affect her constitutional right to pursue a wrongful death claim, which is based on injury to the heirs of the decedent and not solely on injuries to the decedent.

The trial court denied Abdulla's motion, finding that the new section of the code should not be applied retroactively because it was not merely a procedural change. The court also agreed with Bybee's assertion that she could not be bound by an arbitration agreement she did not sign.

The Utah Supreme Court affirmed. "The only intended beneficiary of the contract for medical services between Dr. Abdulla and Mr. Bybee was the patient, Mr. Bybee," the court wrote. "As what was, at most, an incidental beneficiary of her husband's medical treatment, Mrs. Bybee acquired no rights based on Mr. Bybee's physician-patient relationship with Dr. Abdulla."

Bybee's claims should go forward, the court concluded, "because a decedent does not have the power to contract away the wrongful death action of his heirs and because in a wrongful death action by heirs, arbitration does not fall into the category of defenses that can be raised because they were available against the decedent."

Bybee's attorney, Peter Summerill of Ogden, predicted the decision would weaken efforts to enforce arbitration clauses in patient agreements in his state.

"[Bybee] will make it virtually impossible for health care providers to eliminate the right of court access for third-party nonsignatory heirs in cases of wrongful death," he said. "By keeping wrongful death claims in a public court, reckless health care providers will be held accountable in the public eye."
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Author:Walters, Cecily
Date:Aug 1, 2008
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