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Eric Strickholm v. the Evangelical Lutheran Good Samaritan Society D/B/A

June 24, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: B. Lynn Winmill Chief Judge United States District Court



The Court has before it a motion to compel arbitration and stay proceedings. The Court has reviewed the parties' submissions and finds that it would not be significantly aided by oral argument. For the reasons explained below, the Court will deny the motion.


This is a medical negligence action brought by Eric Strickholm against Good Samaritan, a nursing home in Idaho Falls, Idaho. Eric Strickholm's mother, Alma Strickholm, was admitted into Good Samaritan on June 30, 2008, upon her release from the hospital where she had been treated for pneumonia.

Upon his mother's admission to Good Samaritan, Strickhom filled out all necessary forms on her behalf, as he held both a Financial and a Medical or Health Care Power of Attorney on her behalf. Among these forms was an agreement to arbitrate "[a]ny legal controversy, dispute, disagreement or claim of any kind arising out of, or related to this Admission Agreement, or the breach thereof, or, related to the care of stay at the Facility." Resolution of Legal Disputes, Ex. A to Duke Aff., Dkt. 4-2. The agreement further states that it "binds all parties whose claims may arise out of or relate to treatment or service provided by the center including any spouse or heirs of the resident." Id.

While in the care of Good Samaritan, Alma suffered further health complications. She was readmitted to the hospital in late July to address these complications, and she was released August 7, 2008. Strickholm's mother died on August 25, 2008. Strickholm maintains the complications resulting in his mother's death were caused by "the improper and negligent treatment provided by Good Samaritan." Compl. ¶ 15, Dkt. 1-4.

On February 17, 2011, Strickholm filed a Complaint against Good Samaritan alleging a wrongful death claim arising from the care his mother received while at the Good Samaritan facility. Good Samaritan now moves to compel arbitration, arguing that the arbitration agreement between Alma and Good Samaritan, which Strickholm signed as the "responsible party," applies to Strickholm's wrongful death claim. Strickholm responds that the arbitration agreement does not apply to his wrongful death claim because (1) his wrongful death claim belongs to him solely, and his mother had no right to waive his constitutional right to a jury trial; and (2) he did not sign the arbitration agreement in his personal capacity, and therefore he did not agree to arbitrate his wrongful death claim.


Under both federal and Idaho law, there is a strong presumption in favor of arbitrability; however, if the parties did not agree to arbitrate they may not be forced to do so. Howsam v. Dean Witter Reynolds, Inc., 537 U.S. 79, 83 (2002); Mason v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 177 P.3d 944, 947 (Idaho 2007).*fn1 Determining if the parties agreed to arbitrate is the first task of a court asked to compel arbitration. Mason, 177 P.3d at 948. Additionally, the presumption in favor of arbitration is not more important than the parties' intent. Id. at 948 (citing Oil, Chemical & Atomic Workers Int'l Union v. EG& G Idaho, Inc., 769 P.2d 548, 551 (Idaho 1989)).

The parties do not dispute that the arbitration agreement binds Alma's estate for claims relating to the care, treatment, and services Alma received at Good Samaritan. But, as Strickholm correctly notes, the Idaho Supreme Court recently held that wrongful death claims are not derivative but rather independent actions belonging to a decedent's heirs. Castorena v. General Elec., 238 P.3d 209, 218-19 (2010). Under Idaho law, a wrongful death action vests in the statutorily designated survivors at the moment of death. Id. Here, then, Strickholm's wrongful death claim is his solely, and it never belonged to his mother or her estate. Id. at 219. Therefore, Strickholm's mother had no right to waive Strickholm's personal right to a jury trial on the wrongful death claim because it did not arise until after her death.

Good Samaritan argues, however, that Castorena does not provide any assistance in resolving whether a decedent's arbitration agreement binds an heir to submit non-survivor claims to arbitration because Castorena only addressed the application of the statute of limitations to a wrongful death claim. Because Castorena does not address the exact issue raised here, Good Samaritan asserts that "the Castorena decision should not be considered as providing any ruling which determines whether plaintiff's wrongful death action is subject to the arbitration agreement." Def's Reply Br. at 4, Dkt. 6.

While Good Samaritan is technically correct, this argument is not particularly helpful. No Idaho court, to this Court's knowledge, "provides any ruling" on this precise issue. In such situations where the state's highest court has not decided an issue, the task of federal courts sitting in diversity is to predict how the state high court would resolve it. Ticknor v. Choice Hotels Int'l, Inc., 265 F.3d 931, 939 (9th Cir. 2001). In making this assessment, this Court may extrapolate from other related state court decisions even if not exactly on point. Therefore, while Castorena does not directly speak to the question at issue here, its discussion of Idaho's wrongful death statute as an independent cause of action is instructive on whether or not Alma had the power to waive her son's potential wrongful death claim.

In addition, the Court may "look[] to well-reasoned decisions from other jurisdictions" as a source for other persuasive authority. Takahashi v. Loomis Armored Car Serv., 625 F.2d 314, 316 (9th Cir.1980). Other courts have held that nonsignatory heirs do not forfeit their wrongful death claims because of arbitration agreements such as the one at issue in this case. See Fitzhugh v. Granada Healthcare and Rehabilitation Center, ...

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