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Law School Case Brief

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

Rule:

When a defendant is guilty of fraudulent concealment of the cause of action, the statute of limitations is deemed not to become operative until the aggrieved party discovers the existence of the cause of action.

Facts:

Plaintiffs (seven married couples and one unmarried woman) received medical treatments at the Center for Reproductive Health (the Fertility Clinic) located in the Garden Grove Hospital and Medical Center (the Medical Center). The Fertility Clinic was owned and operated by the Regents of the University of California (the Regents), affiliated with the University of California Irvine Medical Center (UCI). The Regents hired Drs. Ricardo Asch and Jose Balmaceda (the doctors) to work at the clinic. In 1995, there were reports from newspapers and press releases that doctors had stolen eggs/pre-embryos from their patients. The victims later learned some of the Fertility Clinic's staff, including Biologist Terri Ord, were asked to keep track of the stolen pre-embryos, how they were used, and who received them. For her protection, Ord secretly kept her own list of the victims and the recipients of the eggs/pre-embryos. The plaintiffs sued the defendant Regents and the Medical Center for fraud, conversion, and intentional infliction of emotional distress related to wrongful intentional conduct. Furthermore, the patients assert they did not know they were victims until one year before filing their complaints. The defendants filed demurrers on the ground that the actions were already time-barred. The trial court sustained the defense demurrers. On appeal, the plaintiffs challenged the trial court's decision to apply the Medical Injury Compensation Reform Act (MICRA) statute of limitations to their complaints, which raised intentional torts. Moreover, they argued that knowledge of harm cannot be imputed based solely on media coverage. They contend the date of discovery cannot be determined as a matter of law, nor can the issue of whether the doctors were acting within the scope and course of their employment.

Issue:

1. Was MICRA properly applied in the case?

2. Were plaintiffs’ actions time-barred under the statue of limitations of MICRA?

3. Did the doctors act outside the scope of their employment as a matter of law, which would impute negligent supervision?

4. Did plaintiffs allege sufficient facts to support a cause of action under a joint venture theory of liability?

Answer:

1. No. 2. No. 3. No. 4. Yes.

Conclusion:

1. The Court concluded that patients' claims for fraud, conversion, and intentional infliction of emotional distress related to wrongful intentional conduct, not mere negligence. The allegations of stealing and then selling a person's genetic material for financial gain were intentional acts of egregious abuse. MICRA was only applicable in cases of professional negligence.

2. The Court held that all claims against the Regents survive, but the intentional infliction of emotional distress and negligent supervision claims against the Medical Center were time-barred. Publicity may arouse suspicion of wrongdoing, but alone it cannot supply the factual basis for a claim. The Court ruled that the statute of limitations was triggered on the date plaintiffs received letters from an attorney stating their names were on a list that had been secretly kept by a clinic staff biologist. Hence, two intentional torts alleged in this case have three-year statutes of limitations, triggered upon discovery of the factual basis of the claim. These claims were timely made against both the Regents and the Medical Center. Also, the claims against the Regents for intentional infliction of emotional distress were also timely. However, because the Medical Center was not added to the complaints until three years after discovery of the factual basis for the intentional infliction of emotional distress claims, the demurrer was properly sustained as to the Medical Center.

3. The Court held that at the stage of litigation, it was unable to determine whether the wrongful conduct was “foreseeable” or an “outgrowth” or “typical” in the fertility treatment business. The Court cannot say as a matter of law the doctors' work and their wrongful conduct was so attenuated that a jury could not reasonably conclude the acts were unforeseeable or outside the scope of employment.

4. The Court held that the complaints alleged facts sufficient to support a cause of action under a joint venture theory of liability. However, the Court refused to rule on the issue of whether the wrongful acts of one of the joint venturers were committed in connection with the joint venture, or can be imputed to the other joint venturers as the review on demurrers was limited.

The Court reversed the appealed judgment in part and affirmed in part.

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