California Supreme Court Holds That Heirs in a Wrongful Death Action Are Bound by Decedent's Agreement to Arbitration


California courts have long wrestled with the question of whether a person's agreement to arbitration binds his or her heirs in a later wrongful death action arising out of his or her death. The California Supreme Court's recent decision, Ruiz v. Podolsky, 2010 Cal LEXIS 8292 (Cal. Aug. 23, 2010), settles the issue, at least in cases of medical negligence, in favor of binding heirs to their decedent's arbitration agreements in wrongful death actions, provided the arbitration agreement's language is sufficiently broad to include claims for wrongful death.

The plaintiffs in Ruiz were the surviving spouse and adult children of a man whose death was attributed to negligent medical care by the defendant, an orthopedic surgeon. When the decedent engaged the defendant's services, he signed a "Physician-Patient Arbitration Agreement," which professed to bind "all parties whose claims may arise out of or relate to treatment or service provided by the physician including any spouse or heirs of the patient and any children, whether born or unborn, at the time of the occurrence giving rise to the claim." Ruiz at p. 3.

The defendant responded to the plaintiffs' wrongful death complaint by seeking to compel all plaintiffs to submit to arbitration in accordance with their decedent's agreement to do so. The plaintiff spouse conceded she was subject to her husband's arbitration agreement under existing California case law, but the adult children argued they could not be forced to arbitrate their claims in the absence of consent. The defendant countered that the adult children, although they had not consented to arbitration, should have their claims "swept up" into arbitration with their mother's claims to fulfill California's "one action rule" for wrongful death claims, which requires that all claimants join claims for the wrongful death of a single person in a single lawsuit.

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