California Court of Appeal Holds that Personal Representative in Wrongful Death Lawsuit Stands in Position of Heirs

In a recent appeal, the California Court of Appeal addressed whether a personal representative in a wrongful death lawsuit represents the heirs in the proceeding.  While a personal representative may have interests that align with the interests of a particular heir, the rule is that their duty is to stand in the position of the decedent’s heirs. 

Marjorie Fitzpatrick had three children, one of whom was plaintiff Valerie Monschke.  Ms. Monschke enrolled Ms. Fitzpatrick into one of defendant Timber Ridge Assisted Living, LLC’s (Timber Ridge) facilities, due to her mother’s dementia.  Ms. Monschke, acting as power of attorney for her mother,  signed a residency agreement allowing Timber Ridge to provide services for her mother.  This agreement contained an arbitration clause requiring that all claims and disputes be resolved by submission to arbitration.

In her complaint, Ms. Monschke alleged that her mother was allowed to exit an exterior door of the defendant’s facility without supervision.  She suffered a fall and was left outside for 30 to 45 minutes.  She suffered injuries, including a displaced wrist, subarachnoid hemorrhage, downward displaced fracture of the tip of her nasal bone, and bruising.  She died of her injuries two weeks later.

Timber Ridge petitioned the trial court to compel binding arbitration for all of Ms. Monschke’s claims.  The trial court stated there was a risk of the action being split between claims, leading to conflicting rulings.  The court also stated that while the action involved Ms. Monschke, who signed the agreement to arbitrate, the action was effectively brought on behalf of the decedent’s surviving children. Timber Ridge challenged the finding that the wrongful death claim was not subject to arbitration.

First, the appellate court rejected Timber Ridge’s argument that Ms. Monschke may be bound by the residency agreement’s arbitration clause, even though she was not a party to the clause. The court stated the rule that generally an individual must be a party to an arbitration agreement to be bound by it.  There are exceptions to the rule, including agents, spouses, and parents of minor children, but these did not apply here.

Here, the court stated that Ms. Monschke was not a party to the residency agreement because she signed it as her mother’s power of attorney, and not in her personal capacity.  The court stated that as a personal representative of the victim’s estate, Ms. Monschke was asserting the wrongful death claim on behalf of the victim’s heirs, not the victim.

The court turned to Code of Civil Procedure section 377.60, which states that a wrongful death action may be brought by either the decedent’s children and heirs, or the decedent’s personal representative.  It cannot be brought by both.  The Code creates a new cause of action in favor of the heirs as beneficiaries, based on their injury suffered by the loss of a relative.  The court stated that recovery in a wrongful death action belongs to the heirs, not to the decedent or the estate.

The court affirmed the trial court order denying the petition to compel arbitration.

At Sharifi Firm, we have decades of experience helping families who have lost a loved one secure compensation through wrongful death lawsuits. Contact us for a free consultation by calling 866-422-7222 or using our online form.

More Blog Posts:

California Court of Appeals Reviews Summary Judgment in Favor of Doctors and Healthcare System in Professional Negligence Lawsuit, Southern California Injury Lawyer Blog, August 24, 2015

California Court of Appeals Affirms Workers’ Compensation Act Applies When Substantial Cause of Injury is Work-Related, Southern California Injury Lawyer Blog, September 25, 2015

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