Palacios v. Lawson

Palacios v. Lawson

4th DCA, 3/6/24

No. 4D2023-0869, 2024 WL 948892

Per Curiam (Klingensmith, Gross and Conner)

Topics: Arbitration; Medical Malpractice

Quick Take: Where an arbitration agreement contracted around Florida’s medical malpractice act rather than incorporating parts of the arbitration statutes under Chapter 766, it was not void under public policy. It was enforceable, and the trial court erred in holding otherwise.

Full Take: This case is about an arbitration agreement and medical malpractice. Plaintiff sued an orthodontist affiliated with SmileDirectClub, treating her remotely and prescribing a clear orthodontic aligner (meant to straighten teeth without using braces) The aligner was supplied by SmileDirectClub. As part of her enrollment in treatment, the plaintiff accepted the following arbitration agreement:

I hereby agree that any dispute regarding the products and services offered through SmileDirectClub and/or by my affiliated dental professionals, including but not limited to medical malpractice disputes, will be resolved through final and binding arbitration before a neutral arbitrator and not by lawsuit filed in any court.... I understand that I am waiving any right I might otherwise have to a trial by jury.... I agree that the arbitration shall be conducted by a single, neutral arbitrator selected by the parties and shall be resolved using the rules of the American Arbitration Association.

After the treatment, the plaintiff claimed the defendant was negligent in failing to discover and treat her periodontal disease. Plaintiff and Defendant both complied with all aspect of Chapter 766’s presuit requirements for medical malpractice claims. Neither requested voluntary binding arbitration under section 766.207, Florida Statutes (2020). The defendant ultimately rejected the plaintiff's claim.

After the presuit process, Plaintiff filed a complaint alleging medical malpractice. The defendant then moved to compel arbitration pursuant to the plaintiff's agreement with SmileDirectClub. Plaintiff argued that the arbitration agreement was void as against public policy because it was inconsistent with the terms of voluntary binding arbitration under Chapter 766, the Medical Malpractice Act. (NOTE: Better arguments might have been that the agreement was with SmileDirectClub, not the Defendant, and that the failure to recognize the periodontal disease was not the same thing as helping her with the aligner.). The trial court agreed, denied the motion to compel arbitration, and Defendant appealed.

The DCA noted that Florida’s Medical Malpractice Act (“MMA”) provides incentives to arbitrate, capping non-economic damages to $250,000 per incident and barring punitive damages, but requiring that defendants concede liability and relaxing evidentiary standards for damages.

But for over a decade, Florida’s Supreme Court has recognized that parties are free to contract around the MMA. But an arbitration agreement that purports to incorporate the statutory scheme without providing the same balance of incentives to submit claims to arbitration contravenes the Legislature's intent and is therefore void as against public policy. Any contract that seeks to enjoy the benefits of the arbitration provisions under the MMA must necessarily adopt all of its provisions. Allowing parties to “pick and choose” which provisions of the MMA to include in their arbitration agreements would render the statutory scheme meaningless. Here, however, the arbitration agreement has nothing to do with the MMA. It just went all the way around it. REVERSED AND REMANDED to order the arbitration.

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