4th DCA
4th DCA (Melanie Bell)

An elderly woman who was injured in a nursing home and prevailed on her arbitration claim may be awarded attorney fees and costs, the Fourth District Court of Appeal ruled Wednesday.

St. Lucie Circuit Judge Robert Belanger denied the request from Gloria Ann Stratton, citing the language in the admission agreement at Emerald Health Care Center.

However, the nursing home’s agreement also said it had the right to request legal fees should it prevail in arbitration.

Palm Beach Circuit Judge Rosemarie Scher, sitting by designation, wrote the opinion, saying Emerald could not reserve the right to legal fees to itself under the state law on prevailing parties.

“The nondrafting party is enforcing the same type of finding in the same type of action that would have allowed attorney’s fees to Emerald. Because the expansive wording of the provision at issue would have allowed Emerald to recover attorney’s fees if the arbitrators’ findings had been in its favor, under the agreement, Stratton also is entitled to her attorney’s fees and costs,” Scher wrote.

Fourth District Judges Melanie May and Robert Gross concurred.

The fee dispute attracted the attention of the Florida Justice Association and the Florida Defense Lawyers Association. Both submitted friend-of-the-court briefs.

“The defendant’s attorneys expended a great deal of effort and expense in disputing every issue and every claim throughout the entirety of the proceeding. It is a shame that these issues could not have been amicably resolved and instead took significant attorney and judicial effort,” said Jeffrey Fulford of Stuart, Stratton’s lawyer.

Emerald attorney James Wyman of Hinshaw & Culbertson in Coral Gables said, “We are disappointed in the result because the statute provides for mutuality of attorney’s fees as a remedy only in contract actions, and this was an action sounding in tort.”