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Posted on: Monday, 30 June 2008, 09:01 CDT
The wife of a man who committed suicide after taking antidepressant medicine may sue the doctor who prescribed it even though her husband had signed an agreement requiring any claims against the doctor be arbitrated, the Utah Supreme Court has ruled. After prescribing medication to treat the man’s depression, the doctor renewed the prescription with a stronger dose. The man committed suicide.
His wife sued the doctor for wrongful death, claiming that he had failed to re-evaluate her husband’s condition and his response to the medication before increasing the dose. She alleged that this failure fell below the standard of care for a reasonable physician.
The doctor sought to arbitrate her wrongful death claim under the terms of the agreement signed by her husband.
But the court ruled that the plaintiff’s case could go forward, affirming a trial court.
“The only intended beneficiary of the contract for medical services between [the doctor] and [the husband] was the patient,” the court said. “As what was, at most, an incidental beneficiary of her husband’s medical treatment, [the plaintiff] acquired no rights based on [her husband’s] physician-patient relationship with [the doctor].”
Further, the court noted, “a decedent does not have the power to contract away the wrongful death action of his heirs.”
Utah Supreme Court. Bybee v. Abdulla. Originally published by Lawyers USA Staff.
(c) 2008 Lawyers USA. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved. Source: Lawyers USA
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Supreme Court of Utah. Lisa BYBEE, Plaintiff and Appellee, v. Alan ABDULLA, M.D., and John Does 1-5, Defendants and Appellants — (Findlaw)
Decided: June 03, 2008
¶ 1 Lisa Bybee filed a wrongful death action against Dr. Alan Abdulla, alleging that his negligent care caused her husband, Mark Bybee, to commit suicide. Because Mr. Bybee had entered into an arbitration agreement, Dr. Abdulla filed a motion to enforce the agreement and to compel Mrs. Bybee to arbitrate her wrongful death claim. The district court denied the motion, and Dr. Abdulla appealed. We affirm.
¶ 2 Lisa Bybee’s husband, Mark Bybee, was a patient of Dr. Alan Abdulla. Following what Mrs. Bybee described as “a major depression,” Mr. Bybee committed suicide. Mrs. Bybee brought a wrongful death action against Dr. Abdulla and five other defendants, alleging that their medical malpractice caused Mr. Bybee’s death. In her complaint, she alleged that Dr. Abdulla, who previously treated Mr. Bybee for allergies and had no expertise in diagnosing or treating depression, prescribed Mr. Bybee antidepressant medicine and later renewed the prescription, increasing the dose. Mrs. Bybee alleged that Dr. Abdulla’s failure to reevaluate Mr. Bybee’s depression and his response to the medicine before increasing the dose or continuing to prescribe the medicine fell below the standard of care of a reasonable physician. She alleged that Dr. Abdulla’s substandard care was the cause of her husband’s suicide. Mrs. Bybee and the heirs of Mr. Bybee sought damages for the loss of love, care, society, consortium, financial support, and inheritance of Mr. Bybee, and Mrs. Bybee and the estate of Mr. Bybee sought damages for the medical and funeral expenses of Mr. Bybee.
¶ 3 Dr. Abdulla moved to stay the district court action and to compel arbitration. The request to compel arbitration was based on an arbitration agreement signed by Mr. Bybee.
¶ 8 Most contracts bind only those who bargain for them.
¶ 10 Dr. Abdulla proposes four reasons that merit our consideration for why we should require Mrs. Bybee to comply with the terms of a contract she did not sign. First, he argues that Mr. Bybee was the “master of his own claim” and that he therefore had unfettered authority to do anything he chose with his claim, including requiring his widow to arbitrate her own separate wrongful death claim. Dr. Abdulla’s second line of reasoning is closely related to the first. Noting that we have allowed certain defenses that could have been asserted against the decedent in his personal injury action to be raised against heirs in a wrongful death action, Dr. Abdulla would have us add the defense of the arbitration agreement to that list. Third, he points to the 2004 amendments to the Utah Medical Malpractice Act that permit enforcement of arbitration against nonsignatories and contends that these statutory provisions should be applied retroactively to Mr. Bybee’s arbitration agreement. Finally, Dr. Abdulla claims that the arbitration agreement binds Mrs. Bybee because she was its intended third-party beneficiary.
¶ 39 Only the patient is the direct beneficiary of a contract between a physician and the patient. That Dr. Abdulla would, therefore, be unable to sustain a claim that Mrs. Bybee should be estopped from avoiding arbitrating her wrongful death claim reinforces our conclusion that she was not an intended third-party beneficiary.
¶ 40 We hold that the district court’s denial of Dr. Abdulla’s motion to compel arbitration was correct because a decedent does not have the power to contract away the wrongful death action of his heirs and because in a wrongful death action by heirs, arbitration does not fall into the category of defenses that can be raised because they were available against the decedent. We therefore affirm the order of the district court denying Dr. Abdulla’s motion to compel arbitration.
¶ 41 Chief Justice DURHAM, Associate Chief Justice DURRANT, Justice WILKINS, and Justice PARRISH concur in Justice NEHRING’s opinion.