Whether a Funeral Home Consumer Expects to Arbitrate

After a rather lengthy, albeit unintentional hiatus, we are back and looking at a topic previously explored but apparently recurring: whether arbitration clauses in certain consumer contracts are enforceable.

In the recent case of Akilah Wofford, et al. v. Edwards & Sons Funeral Home, Inc., et al., the Court of Appeals said no. The case turned on the discussions had and paperwork signed over a two day period following the death of Ms. Wofford's father. Three days after her father died, Ms. Wofford began making the funeral arrangements with Edwards & Sons Funeral Home which included embalming, ordering a casket, and the general cost of the funeral home's services. Ms. Wofford signed a document titled "Statement of Funeral Goods and Services" that day too. The following day, Ms. Wofford was asked to return and complete the final paperwork, which she did. Unlike the first day's documents, however, the final paperwork included a clear, all capital letters, and bold notice of an arbitration clause directly above Ms. Wofford's signature line. However, the notice referenced a "part 3" containing the actual arbitration clause, which was never given to Ms. Wofford. 

Eventually a dispute arose, Ms. Wofford sued, and Edwards & Sons moved to compel arbitration. Sadly, the dispute dealt with Ms. Wofford's class action claims involving the alleged improper handling of human remains at the cemetery. The Court of Appeals noted that although arbitration clauses are enforceable and favored in Tennessee, parties "cannot be forced to arbitrate claims that they did not agree to arbitrate." On the record before it, the Court concluded that Ms. Wofford didn't agree to arbitrate her claims and thus, the clause was unenforceable. The Court found that the signed notice referencing the actual arbitration clause in part 3 without giving part 3 to Ms. Wofford was not enough. The Court went even further, however, and found that the particular contract was a contract of adhesion (i.e. Ms. Wofford had no realistic chance to negotiate its terms differently in light of the multiple day signing period) and that the arbitration clause was unconscionable.

Several important items can be learned from this case including not just what the contract says, but how it's presented and under what time period. Also, clients in emotionally taxing situations such as funeral home service providers, should be especially mindful of these issues.