Last Friday the North Carolina Supreme Court issued an opinion that should prick up the ears of any physician, hospital, or healthcare facility that asks its patients to agree to binding arbitration in the event of a dispute. In King v. Bryant (January 27, 2017), the court’s majority held that a physician was in a fiduciary relationship with a new patient at the time the patient signed an arbitration agreement at his initial intake. The majority then concluded that, because the physician’s office did not take sufficient measures to disclose the nature and import of the agreement, but instead effectively buried it among other intake papers, the agreement was the product of breach of that fiduciary duty.
Background. The procedural history of the case is complex, but here are the essential facts and lower-court findings that led to the ruling:
In 2009, Mr. King was referred to a surgeon, Dr. Bryant, for a hernia repair. While Mr. King was in the waiting area before meeting Dr. Bryant for the first time, the desk employee asked him to complete forms seeking his medical history and to sign several documents, among which was an arbitration agreement. This was the routine practice in the office for new patient intake. After meeting with Dr. Bryant, Mr. King signed another series of health-related and insurance forms. Believing all the documents to be “just a formality,” he did not read them before signing. During the surgery, Dr. Bryant injured Mr. King’s distal abdominal aorta, requiring substantial additional hospital treatment and causing significant injury to Mr. King’s right leg and foot. Mr. King filed a medical malpractice action about two years later. Continue Reading