Burns White attorneys John Bass and Ira Podheiser obtained a victory before the Pennsylvania Superior Court when they convinced a three-judge panel of the Superior Court to reverse a ruling by the Trial Court refusing to enforce an agreement to arbitrate claims. Attorneys Bass and Podheiser represented a nursing home that was sued in the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County by the estate of a deceased resident, raising wrongful death and survival claims. The resident had signed a power-of-attorney authorizing her husband to, among other things, litigate and arbitrate claims on her behalf. Consistent with these powers, upon admission to the nursing home, decedent’s husband signed an agreement to submit claims against the nursing home to binding arbitration.
On behalf of the nursing home, attorneys Bass and Podheiser filed preliminary objections in the Trial Court. They argued that, pursuant to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s seminal opinion in Taylor v. Extendicare Health Facilities, Inc., as a matter of law, the survival claim had to be submitted to arbitration, while the wrongful death claim would be litigated in Court. The Trial Court, while acknowledging Taylor, nevertheless refused to enforce the agreement, stating, in effect, that this type of bifurcation was not authorized and could not be enforced absent some evidence demonstrating the decedent’s intent.
Attorneys Bass and Podheiser appealed to the Superior Court and, in a unanimous opinion, the panel reversed the Trial Court and directed that the survival claim be submitted to arbitration. The panel held that the Supreme Court’s opinion in Taylor required the bifurcation of the survival and wrongful death claims, and that the power-of-attorney clearly authorized the estate to arbitrate claims on decedent’s behalf. The panel also independently reviewed the arbitration agreement and found nothing in it that would render it unenforceable due to the doctrine of unconscionability.