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Judge Rejects Eight UCI Fertility Suits

Plaintiffs are told they filed late, though school didn't tell them eggs and embryos were stolen.

July 22, 2006|Christian Berthelsen | Times Staff Writer

A judge on Friday dismissed eight lawsuits stemming from the UC Irvine fertility clinic scandal, ruling the plaintiffs brought their claims too late even though the school never told them that their eggs and embryos had been stolen and implanted in other women.

Those cases were among about 30 filed in 2002 and '03 by people who were never told of the problem by UC Irvine, despite former Chancellor Laurel L. Wilkening's pledge that the university's "first priority" would be to locate them. The women learned of the cases from plaintiffs' attorneys who discovered them during civil litigation.

The cases included one couple who were never informed of the egg thefts even though their contact information was on file with the fertility clinic, and another who were told by UC Irvine that the woman's eggs were not involved in the scandal.

More than a decade has passed since it was revealed that world-renowned doctors at UC Irvine's fertility clinic owed their success to genetic larceny: Rather than being geniuses who performed miracles with barren women, they were implanting them with the eggs and embryos of other unsuspecting patients.

The scandal's legacy lives on in the courts, where victims previously unaware of the case file suits and hope to one day meet their progenies. David Ronquillo, an attorney representing the families, said he continues to find new victims.

The university has acknowledged it failed to contact at least 20 couples and has settled six of the cases, all filed against the University of California system. But, at the same time, it has fought some of the cases in court, saying the scandal's enormous publicity should have been sufficient warning to couples that something was wrong and an encouragement to investigate further. UC has paid more than $20 million in settlements related to the fertility cases.

In his ruling Friday, Orange County Superior Court Judge Stephen J. Sundvold found that the cases should have been filed within three years of the newspaper articles that began appearing in 1995.

"The patients didn't know their eggs were stolen, so they weren't put on notice for a claim," said Manuel Corrales, another attorney for the plaintiffs told the judge. "Our clients wanted to continue to believe what these doctors said, and that's why they didn't sue earlier."

But Sundvold, citing UC's arguments, noted that at least 100 newspaper stories about the matter appeared in 1995 and that the "widespread and pervasive nature" of the publicity should have spurred the victims to act. The patients' attorneys argued that the publicity was largely limited to Orange County, where few of these plaintiffs live.

Five of the women whose cases were dismissed attended the hearing.

"I thought he had no conscience," said Rosalinda Elison, whose eggs were stolen during treatment for reversal of a tubal ligation and were implanted in a woman who gave birth to twins.

Elison moved from Riverside County to the high desert near Lancaster in 1997 and was never contacted by UC Irvine. "The only thing I could think of was ... 'When is someone going to stand up for what is right?' "

Elizabeth Ruhl of Cypress learned of her case from a lawyer in 2002. She was disappointed the judge dismissed her case on a technicality instead of merit.

Julie Kirk of Chino had donated eggs to the clinic but was told by UC Irvine that they were not given to anyone who got pregnant. She learned different in 2002.

"He ignored the fact there were people's lives affected by what happened," she said. "It seemed indicative of how the time we live in is so impersonal."

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