A recent case from the Ohio Supreme Court illustrates a division in the way different jurisdictions treat workers’ compensation claims where the employer and employee signed an arbitration agreement. In Peters v. Columbus Steel Castings Co., 115 Ohio St.3d 134 (2007) http://www.sconet.state.oh.us/rod/newpdf/default.asp, the employee agreed to arbitrate all claims he might have against his employer. The question the Court addressed is whether, after Peters’ death, his agreement could be interpreted to require his spouse to arbitrate her wrongful death claim against Peters’ employer.
To determine whether this was the case, the court examined Ohio’s wrongful death statute (in my view, correctly) to see whether it makes the spouse (or other heir’s) claims derivative of the employee’s claim. The court stated that Ohio makes those claims independent rather than derivative and that treating them in that way (as independent) is the minority view. As long as the spouse’s claim is independent of the employee’s claim, the court’s holding that she is not bound to arbitrate is a correct statement of both arbitration and contract law. In other words, a spouse’s independent and direct claim for wrongful death is not subject to a contract that the party did not sign. It’s her claim for wrongful death. Colorado approaches the problem the same way because its wrongful death act makes the wrongful death claim separate and distinct from the cause of action the deceased would have had for personal injuries if he had survived.
I believe the decision is correct because Ohio’s wrongful death statute provides the surviving spouse or heirs with an independent claim.
One ironic note, in the conclusion, the court stated, “[a] lthough we have long favored arbitration and encourage it as a cost-effective proceeding that permits parties to achieve permanent resolution of their disputes in an expedient manner, it may not be imposed on the unwilling.” This statement seems ironic because many parties challenge arbitration agreements because they would prefer not to use arbitration once a dispute arises. I think the court would have been better off saying that arbitration should not be imposed on those who did not agree to it.