Legal News

Brooks v. Mercy Hospital (Recent decision on statute of limitations tolling in medical negligence actions by imprisoned plaintiffs)

The Fifth Appellate District of the California Court of Appeal recently held that a prisoner serving a life sentence with the possibility of parole can invoke the tolling provision of Code of Civil Procedure (CCP) section 352.1 in Brooks v. Mercy Hospital (July 1, 2016) 16 C.D.O.S. 7164.

Plaintiff Brooks filed a complaint for injuries sustained allegedly as a result of medical care received while incarcerated for a life sentence with the possibility of parole. Plaintiff alleged defendants “overmedicated him and allowed an ‘IV Port’ to become infected, among other things.” Defendant hospital demurred on the grounds plaintiff’s action was barred by applicable one-year statute of limitations, since the treatment in question was rendered in April 2013, plaintiff served a notice of intent to sue on September 5, 2013, yet did not file his complaint until September 24, 2014. In addition, defendant argued the tolling provision of CCP section 352.1 was not available to plaintiff since he was serving a life sentence and Section 532.1 “grants a two-year tolling of the statute of limitations to persons who are imprisoned ‘for a term less than life.’”

Of note, in 1999, the California Supreme Court held the one-year medical negligence limitations period in CCP section 340.5 CCP was tolled for imprisoned plaintiffs pursuant to CCP section 352.1. (Belton v. Bowers Ambulance Service (1999) 20 Cal.4th 928.) Under Belton, the tolling of the “one-year from date of discovery” provision of section 340.5 could be extended up to, but not beyond, the “three years from the date of incident” limitations period also found in section 340.5.

Mr. Brooks contended that even though he was serving a life sentence, it was a life sentence with the possibility of parole; therefore, his term was potentially less than life and the tolling provision under section 352.1 should be available to him. In support of his position, plaintiff cited Grasso v. McDonough Power Equipment, Inc. (1968) 264 Cal.App.2d 597 for the proposition that CCP section 352.1 applied to “all prisoners except those subject to a life sentence without the possibility of parole.” (Emphasis in original). Though Grasso relied on section 352 (the predecessor to 352.1), the appellate court agreed with plaintiff that the Grasso decision was dispositive and remains good law to this day. The Grasso court noted that “‘for a term less than for life’ should not be interpreted as excluding all life-termers, but only those without the possibility of parole.” In so holding, the appellate court reversed the trial court’s judgment order and issued “instructions that the trial court enter a new order overruling defendant’s demurrer to plaintiff’s complaint.”

A complete copy of the Opinion can be found online at: http://www.courts.ca.gov/opinions/documents/F071884.PDF