Statutes of Limitations: Delayed Discovery

By on May 20, 2008 - Comments off

Unruh-Haxton v. Regents of the University of California (2008) 162 Cal.App.4th 343, 76 Cal.Rptr.3d 146

Several patients who received fertility treatments filed an action against a medical center and the University of California, alleging that their physicians had been stealing and selling human genetic material including eggs and pre-embryos. Asserting causes of action for fraud, conversion and intentional infliction of emotional distress, the plaintiffs alleged that they were unaware they were potential victims until several years after receiving the treatments.

The trial court sustained the defendants’ demurrers, taking upon judicial notice of approximately 100 news articles and press releases regarding the scandal, determining that the plaintiffs should have suspected wrongdoing, (i.e., constructive suspicion), much sooner than alleged in the complaints. However, the court of appeal reversed, holding that the media coverage alone did not, as a matter of law, establish constructive suspicion on the part of the plaintiffs:

We conclude neither Nelson nor McKelvey provides authority to support the court’s ruling that public awareness of a problem through media coverage alone creates constructive suspicion for purposes of discovery. “The statute of limitations does not begin to run when some members of the public have a suspicion of wrongdoing, but only ‘once the plaintiff has a suspicion of wrongdoing.’
. . .
[A] hearing on demurrer cannot be turned into a contested evidentiary hearing. Because constructive suspicion is not enough to trigger the statute of limitations, the fact the scandal was publicized is irrelevant unless the plaintiff admits to having knowledge of the publicity. There is no evidence these plaintiffs in earlier pleadings made statements that were inconsistent with their claim to being unaware of the publicity. (Cf. Owens v. Kings Supermarket (1988) 198 Cal.App.3d 379, 383-384, 243 Cal.Rptr. 627 [if plaintiff fails to explain the inconsistency, the earlier admissions will be “read into” the pleading before the court, and the latter inconsistent allegations will be disregarded].) Since knowledge of widespread media coverage cannot be imputed to these plaintiffs, the media publicity is irrelevant. Any dispute as to whether these plaintiffs are telling the truth cannot be resolved at this early stage of the proceedings. Judicial notice of this interpretation of the media coverage was improper.
. . .
The McKelvey court never suggested knowledge of widespread publicity could be imputed to an individual plaintiff (especially one who claimed to be unaware of the publicity). The case simply does not support the novel legal theory a court evaluating a demurrer may take judicial notice of “constructive suspicion” due to media coverage.
. . .
The court could not rely on judicial notice of the media reports to support an inference these patients had knowledge of their injury because “such matters are reasonably subject to dispute and therefore require formal proof. [Citation.]” (Lockley, supra, 91 Cal.App.4th at p. 882, 110 Cal.Rptr.2d 877.) At this juncture, we must conclude the allegations in the complaint were sufficient to support the patients’ claims of delayed discovery.

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