On November 19, 2013, Rosa Mendez filed an in pro per civil complaint in Superior Court against Cottage Health System, the parent organization of Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital. The factual allegations were contained in an undated letter addressed to the staff at Santa Barbara City College (SBCC), a copy of which was attached to the complaint. The letter stated that on October 28, 2010, Mendez was exposed to dangerous levels of radiation while assisting an x-ray technician at Cottage Hospital.

Mendez said she was working at the hospital that day as part of her coursework in the x-ray technician program at SBCC. Mendez immediately complained to the technician and the chairperson of SBCC’s Department of Radiologic and Imaging Sciences, both of whom deemed the complaints unfounded.

After the exposure, Mendez alleged she “began to experience severe chest pain and dizziness and blurred vision.” Although the letter does not refer to the date when these symptoms purportedly began, another attachment indicates that Mendez sought treatment for blurred vision in March 2011. The letter also states that Mendez has “been suffering mentally and emotionally since [she] was exposed to unnecessary radiation.” No amount of damages was specified.

Cottage demurred to the complaint, contending among other things, that the action was barred by the statute of limitations. Mendez did not oppose the demurrer. In sustaining the demurrer, the court noted that “[t]he complaint itself alleges that [Mendez] was aware of the incident when it occurred” on October 28, 2010, yet did not file her action until November 19, 2013. The court concluded that Mendez had thus filed her action beyond the two-year statute of limitations for personal injury claims. The court nevertheless granted Mendez leave to amend “because there may exist some set [of] facts which could potentially act to bring the action within some tolling provision[.]”

Mendez then filed a first amended complaint seeking $14 million in compensatory damages, unspecified punitive damages, and “life time medical insurance” for herself and her two children. Mendez once again stated she was immediately concerned about the radiation exposure and added that she began experiencing symptoms of the exposure the following month. Mendez also alleged that the chairperson of SBCC’s Department of Radiologic and Imaging Sciences, the attorney who represented Mendez in proceedings before the Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board (WCAB), and the judge who presided over those proceedings all fraudulently induced Mendez to refrain from filing suit until after the limitations period had expired.

Cottage demurred to the first amended complaint, again asserting that the action was time-barred. Mendez opposed the demurrer, claiming that the doctrine of equitable tolling applied. The trial court sustained the demurrer without leave to amend, reasoning that the first amended complaint only alleged a claim of negligence and was filed beyond the two-year statute of limitations that applies to such claims. In rejecting Mendez’s claim of equitable tolling, the court noted that Mendez’s allegations and supporting documentation “conclusively show that she was aware of her claim on the date of the incident.” The court further noted that Mendez had not alleged that she was misled by Cottage or its employees to refrain from pursuing her claim. Judgment was entered in favor of Cottage, and Mendez appealed. The Court of Appeal affirmed the dismissal in the unpublished case of Mendez v Cottage Health Systems.

Mendez did not file her complaint until November 2013, so the court properly found it was time-barred. Even if Mendez had sufficiently alleged a claim for fraud or professional negligence, her complaint was also filed beyond the three-year limitations period that applies to such claims. Mendez’s workers’ compensation claim against Cottage was only pending from August 28, 2012, until November 5, 2012. Tolling the statute of limitations for this 69-day period would not have aided Mendez, who filed her complaint over three years after she discovered her claim.

 

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