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Florida Fourth DCA affirms order compelling arbitration in nursing home negligence case despite lack of explicit reference in arbitration agreement to tort claims

On October 21, 2020, in Cooper v. Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills LLC, et al., No. 4D20-163, the Florida Fourth DCA affirmed a trial court order compelling arbitration of the plaintiff’s personal injury lawsuit against the nursing home. The plaintiff alleged that the nursing home was negligent during Hurricane Irma because it failed to take appropriate steps to protect her and other residents when the air conditioning failed.  The plaintiff’s admission agreement provides that “any controversy or claim arising out of or relating to this Agreement, or the breach thereof, shall be settled by arbitration in accordance with the provisions of the Florida Arbitration Code found at Chapter 682.”  The plaintiff argued that the arbitration provision did not cover tort claims.  Quoting in part from Ronbeck Const. Co., Inc. v. Savanna Club Corp., 592 So. 2d 344, 346 (Fla.4th DCA 1992), the Fourth DCA noted that “[a] legion of cases have established that arbitration agreements are favored, and courts ‘should resolve all doubts about the scope of an arbitration agreement . . . in favor of arbitration, rather than against it.’”  The Fourth DCA went on to observe that Florida courts generally classify arbitration agreements into two basic types: (1) provisions with language and application narrow in scope; (2) provisions with language and application broad in scope, and that a narrow arbitration clause is one which requires arbitration for claims arising out of the subject contract, while a provision which is broad in scope allows for arbitration of claims arising out of or related to the contract, including tort claims. See Jackson v. Shakespeare Found., Inc., 108 So. 3d 587, 593 (Fla. 2013) and Seifert v. U.S. Home Corp., 750 So. 2d 633, 636-37 (Fla. 1999). The Fourth DCA acknowledged that even in contracts containing broad arbitration clauses,  there must be “some nexus between the dispute and the contract containing the arbitration clause,” quoting from Seifert at 638, but observed that the Florida Supreme Court in Jackson indicated that “[t]he addition of the words ‘relating to’ broadens the scope of an arbitration provision to include those claims that are described as having a ‘significant relationship’ to the contract—regardless of whether the claim is founded in tort or contract law.” Jackson, 108 So. 3d at 593.

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