Agreements to Arbitrate in a Hospital Setting

Hoffspiegel Law Blog

Consumer advocates has railed for years about arbitration agreements.  Many arbitration clauses are hidden in fine print.  When the consumer reaches the arbitration panel, it may be heavily weighted against the consumer and the panel may be comprised of professionals in the field whose loyalty to the industry or product outweighs their sense of commitment to the concept of fairness.

More troubling to some is the appearance of arbitration agreements in hospital documents.  More and more frequently, when you go to the hospital and are signing their admission forms, one of the documents is an Agreement to Arbitrate any dispute between you and the providers or to the hospital.  That includes arbitrating the issue of whether the hospital’s malpractice caused you injury or even death. 

The fact is that when you are signing these documents you are not generally at your best.  You are hurt or ill and not in much of a position to focus on something that seems so unlikely and intangible at the time.  So, you may sign it just to get it over with.  Do you have to sign?   The short answer is that you do not.

The rule of thumb in Georgia is that ambiguities in language or otherwise shall be resolved in favor of arbitration.  If the facts of the signing or the terms of the signing are unclear, the court will likely rule in favor of enforcing arbitration.  You may end up with a panel of professionals hearing your case rather than a jury.  While that won’t be the end of your case, it may not turn out to be the best way to proceed.

Here are some factors to consider:

  1.  1. If you sign an agreement to arbitrate in a hospital on one occasion, in spite of the document stating that you will also arbitrate all future disputes with the hospital, when you show up a year later with a new problem, if you don’t sign a brand new agreement, your new issue will not be covered by the prior agreement to arbitrate.
  2. If you do not sign the agreement to arbitrate, you will not have to arbitrate in the event you are harmed and want to file suit at a later date.  Instead, you will have full access to the courts.
  3. It would be unusual for the provider to say they will not treat you if you do not sign.  Typically, it is just one of a number of documents that you will sign and will just go into the stack for use at a later date, if needed.  Some providers even give you the right to withdraw your permission within a certain time period.

What should I do?  Simply put, it is generally agreed in the legal profession that an injured consumer is better served by not arbitrating.  Our forefathers fought hard for the right to trial by jury.  The importance of that right cannot be overstated.  You are statistically more likely to succeed in a civil courtroom and if you succeed, are more likely to be awarded fair compensation through the trial by jury system than if you agree to have the matter heard by arbitration.  So, resist the temptation to just sign everything put in front of you.  Preserve your rights. You just may need to exercise them one day.

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