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Dean v. Heritage Healthcare of Ridgeway, LLC

Supreme Court of South Carolina

June 18, 2014

Darlene Dean, as Personal Representative of the Estate of Louise Porter, Respondent,
v.
Heritage Healthcare of Ridgeway, LLC, Uni-Health Post Acute Care-Tanglewood, LLC and UHS Pruitt Corporation, Appellants

Heard April 1, 2014

Page 728

Appeal From Fairfield County. Appellate Case No. 2013-000509. J. Ernest Kinard, Jr., Circuit Court Judge.

Todd W. Smyth and Joshua Steven Whitley, both of Smyth Whitley, LLC, of Charleston, for Appellants.

John D. Kassel and Theile Branham McVey, of Kassel McVey, and Gerald Jowers, Jr., of Janet, Jenner & Suggs, all of Columbia, and Kenneth G. Goode, of Winnsboro, for Respondent.

CHIEF JUSTICE TOAL. BEATTY, KITTREDGE and HEARN, JJ., concur. PLEICONES, J., concurring in result only.

OPINION

Page 729

[408 S.C. 376] TOAL CHIEF JUSTICE

Heritage Healthcare of Ridgeway, LLC, Uni-Health Post-Acute Care - Tanglewood,

Page 730

LLC (Tanglewood), and UHS-Pruitt Corporation (collectively, Appellants) ask this Court to reverse the circuit court's denial of their motion to compel arbitration in this wrongful death and survival action involving Appellants' allegedly negligent nursing home care. We reverse and remand.

Facts/Procedural Background

Tanglewood is a skilled nursing facility located in Ridgeway, South Carolina, and is owned and controlled by Appellants. In January 2007, Tanglewood and Darlene Dean (Respondent) entered into a nursing home residency agreement in which Tanglewood assumed responsibility for the care of Respondent's mother, Louise Porter (the patient). The same day, Respondent signed a separate, voluntary arbitration agreement (the Agreement).[1]

The Agreement states that:

any and all controversies, claims, disputes, disagreements or demands of any kind . . . arising out of or relating to the [patient's residency agreement] with the Facility . . . or any service or care provided to the [patient] by the Facility shall be settled exclusively by binding arbitration. This means that the parties are waiving their right to a trial before a jury or a judge.

Further, the Agreement provides that:

Any arbitration proceeding that takes place under this [] Agreement shall follow the rules of the American Arbitration Association ('AAA') and any resulting decision shall be enforceable by a court of competent jurisdiction. The arbitration proceeding shall be conducted where the Facility is [408 S.C. 377] located or as close to the Facility as practical. The arbitration proceeding shall be conducted before one neutral arbitrator selected in accordance with the rules of the AAA. The parties agree to bear their own attorneys' fees and costs associated with the arbitration proceeding.

Id. (emphasis added). Finally, the Agreement contains a severability clause and states, in bold font directly above the signature lines, that the patient " is not required to sign this [] Agreement in order to be admitted to or to remain in the Facility." (Emphasis in original).

In 2009, the patient fell three separate times within a ten day period, fracturing her hip in the third fall. Over the next two months, the patient underwent two hip surgeries; however, due to complications following the surgeries, the patient died on September 30, 2009.

On December 20, 2011, Respondent--acting in her capacity as personal representative of her mother's estate--filed a Notice of Intent (NOI) to file a medical malpractice suit against Appellants, as well as an expert affidavit in support of her NOI. See S.C. Code Ann. § 15-79-125 (Supp. 2012). Respondent also alleged claims for survival and wrongful death.

Appellants requested discovery of all of the patient's medical records, which Respondent provided. The parties then engaged in the statutorily required pre-suit mediation; however, following an impasse, Respondent filed her complaint on March 23, 2012. In lieu of filing an answer to the complaint, Appellants filed a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rules 12(b)(1) and (6), SCRCP, or, in the alternative, a motion to compel arbitration and stay the litigation.

Respondent opposed the motion, arguing, inter alia, that the Agreement was unenforceable because the " forum selection" clause had failed. More specifically, Respondent claimed the portion of the Agreement stating that " [a]ny arbitration proceeding that takes place under this [] Agreement shall follow the rules of the [AAA]" meant that the parties had agreed to an arbitration proceeding administered exclusively by the AAA. However, since January 1, 2003, the AAA has [408 S.C. 378] refused ...


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