Wrongful Death and Arbitration Agreements

Many companies try to avoid wrongful death lawsuits by compelling individuals to sign binding arbitration agreements. For example, many California nursing homes include arbitration clauses in admission forms. This means that if the resident dies due to the nursing home’s abuse or neglect, the family cannot pursue a wrongful death claim in court, but must instead submit their dispute to a private arbitration.

While private arbitration has its place, such proceedings often place victims at a disadvantage. This is why it is critical to speak with an attorney before signing any kind of contract that may affect your right to sue. Even when a company attempts to enforce an arbitration agreement, you should consult with a California personal injury attorney who can advise you on whether such provisions are even enforceable.

Arbitration Convention Inapplicable to Non-Parties

Here is a recent example of a case where a federal court declined to enforce arbitration in the context of a wrongful death claim. This case actually originated in Guam, an unincorporated territory of the United States. The victim worked as a seaman for a private fishing vessel.

The victim worked under an employment contract with the owner of the vessel, although a separate management company (with the same owners) was actually responsible for supplying the vessel’s crew and overseeing its maintenance. In May 2010, the vessel sank “in calm seas and good weather,” according to news reports after taking on water and flooding. The victim was killed while attempting to locate and rescue the vessel’s captain, who also died in the sinking.

Many lawsuits followed, centering on the poor maintenance of the vessel and the improper training of its crew. In April 2015 a federal jury in Guam ordered the vessel’s owner to pay over $3.2 million in damages to the widow of the captain. Meanwhile, our present victim’s claim has yet to be tried because the defendants–the owner and the management company–attempted to compel arbitration under the seaman’s employment contract.

The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over California, Guam, and several other western states, ultimately rejected the defendants’ arbitration demands. Affirming the Guam court’s prior rulings on this issue, the Ninth Circuit said the management company, which was not a signatory to the purported arbitration agreement, has no standing to compel arbitration.

The defendants are foreign companies seeking to assert their right to arbitration under an international convention incorporated into U.S. law. As the Ninth Circuit explained, this convention “does not allow non-signatories or non-parties to compel arbitration.” Nor can the management company compel arbitration on any other legal grounds.

Need Advice Regarding a California Wrongful Death Claim?

It should be noted that unlike most wrongful death claims, which fall under state law, cases like the one above involve a separate federal statute, the Death on the High Seas Act. Indeed, a wrongful death case may invoke any number of different state and federal laws. This is why you should always work with an experienced Pasadena personal injury lawyer when you have lost a loved one due to negligence. Call the offices of Strassburg, Gilmore, & Wei, Attorneys at Law, today at (626) 683-9933 if you are need of assistance and would like to schedule a consultation.

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