CHARLESTON, W.Va. - A full-on cat-and-mouse game has broken out between the West Virginia Supreme Court, the U.S. Supreme Court and nursing home companies trying to get people to appear before private judges.
The state's high court is obviously dubious of an emerging and parallel system of justice in America: arbitration hearings.
An increasing number of contracts come with arbitration agreements.
People who sign these agreements - often without knowing they are doing so - are giving away their right to jury trials. Instead, they agree to leave things in the hands of private arbitration judges.
Supporters say arbitration is a way to avoid long and costly trials in clogged public courts. Critics argue the private judges are beholden to the companies that give the private judges their business.
The state Supreme Court has sided, rather notably, with the critics.
In summer 2011, the court said personal injury and wrongful death claims on behalf of nursing home residents belong in normal courtrooms - not in front of private judges.
That opinion, written by Justice Menis Ketchum, was clear: "Disputes should be decided by juries of lay citizens rather than paid, professional fact finders who may be more interested in their fees."
The ruling would have exposed nursing homes to greater liabilities.
But it was - in the eyes of the U.S. Supreme Court - absolutely wrong.
The nation's high court said in early 2012 that Ketchum's ruling was "incorrect and inconsistent" with federal law.
So, the state Supreme Court had to back away. Nursing homes could keep sending claims against them to private judges.
But the state Supreme Court last week found a new way to ensure some bereaved family members can sue nursing homes in normal courtrooms with jury trials.
The ruling, a unanimous decision written by Justice Robin Daivs, has the effect of exposing nursing homes to greater liability - something the industry fears in the wake of large verdicts against nursing homes accused of mistreating or neglecting the elderly and gravely ill.
The court's most recent ruling said some people who check their relatives into nursing homes couldn't sign away a resident's right to a jury trial. This means an untold number of arbitration agreements are unenforceable unless the person going into the nursing home signs them.
It is not uncommon for people going into nursing homes to be unable to sign the paperwork, though there is apparently no good information on how many people do not sign their own paperwork in West Virginia.
In 2009, Nancy Belcher checked her mother, Beulah Wyatt, into McDowell Nursing & Rehabilitation Center in Gary, a town in McDowell County.
Belcher was designated as her incapacitated mother's "health care surrogate," a legal title that allowed Belcher to make decisions about her mother's health. Belcher signed a contract that agreed any claims against the nursing home would be settled by a private arbitration judge.
Wyatt allegedly sustained pressure sores, infections, dehydration, malnutrition and other injuries while she was at McDowell, which is owned by American Medical Facilities Management, or AMFM.