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California Lifers with Possibility of Parole Entitled to SOL Tolling

The California Court of Appeal held on June 1, 2016 that the one-year statute of limitations (SOL) for a prisoner’s negligence claim was tolled because he was not serving a sentence of life without parole.

California state prisoner Ernest J. Brooks was serving an indeterminate life sentence with the possibility of parole when he was taken to Mercy Hospital for medical treatment in April 2013. While there, he was overmedicated and his IV port became infected.

Under California law, Brooks had until April 2014 to file a negligence action against the hospital. He filed a notice of intent to sue on September 5, 2013 but did not actually file his lawsuit until September 24, 2014 – five months outside the applicable SOL. Mercy Hospital moved to dismiss, arguing the suit was time-barred by the state’s one-year SOL for professional negligence actions against health care providers under California Code of Civil Procedure, section 340.5. Brooks argued that his action was timely because section 352.1(a) grants a two-year tolling of the SOL for people who are imprisoned “for a term less than for life.”

The trial court granted the hospital’s motion, holding that the SOL was not tolled under section 352.1(a) because Brooks was serving an indeterminate life sentence.

The California Court of Appeal reversed, concluding that “the tolling provision has been interpreted to apply to all prisoners except those subject to a life sentence without the possibility of parole.” See: Grasso v. McDonough Power Equipment, Inc. 264 Cal.App.2d 597 (Cal. App. 1st Dist. 1968). The appellate court found Grasso remained good law and was dispositive.

“Section 352.1 tolling should have been applied to plaintiff” because he was not serving a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, the Court of Appeal held. As such, it reversed the judgment “with instructions that the trial court enter a new order overruling defendant’s demurrer to plaintiff’s complaint.” See: Brooks v. Mercy Hospital, 1 Cal. App. 5th 1, 204 Cal. Rptr. 3d 289 (Cal. App. 5th Dist. 2016). 

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Related legal case

Brooks v. Mercy Hospital