The effect mental capacity has on contractual rights

From time to time we publish summaries of interesting trust and estate cases. Today’s post examines a recent Oregon Appeals Court decision in the rapidly expanding field of elder law. The case involves an elderly woman with impaired mental capacity and asks whether she may be a considered a third-party beneficiary (under contract law) of a residency agreement signed on her behalf. The case also touches on the issue of arbitration clauses in residency agreements at senior housing facilities. Arbitration clauses like the one at issue in this case have been the subject of a number of recent 9th circuit cases.

Drury v. Assisted Living Concepts, 245 Or App 217 (2011)

Background: Dorothy Drury was suffering from dementia and her mental capacity was severely impaired at the time her son, Eddie, admitted her to the defendant’s assisted living facility. Eddie signed the facility’s admission paperwork and residency agreement. At that time he was not yet Dorothy’s guardian or conservator and did not then have a power of attorney for her.

The residency agreement included a clause requiring arbitration for all claims or disputes relating to the agreement or the services provided “to You by Us.” After about a year in the facility, Dorothy died as a result of injuries sustained in a fall. Her estate’s personal representative sued the facility for wrongful death resulting from negligent conduct. The defendants (unsuccessfully) moved to compel arbitration, arguing that the estate was bound to the arbitration clause in the residency agreement as a third-party beneficiary of the contract.

On appeal, the court held that Dorothy’s estate was not bound to the agreement and its arbitration clause. Under general contract law principles, a third-party beneficiary is presumed to assent to a contract when it accepts benefits or otherwise seeks to enforce rights under that contract. Dorothy was a “third-party donee beneficiary” of the residency agreement signed by her son. The critical issue for the court was Dorothy’s mental capacity – or lack thereof. Even though Dorothy accepted the contract’s benefits (the facility’s services and apartment), her lack of requisite mental capacity meant that her acceptance of benefits did not ratify the contract.