Student sues UC San Diego for injuries in anti-Trump election night protest shutting down freeway, claiming university ‘organized’ it

A lawsuit just filed against the University of California San Diego looks like one of those situations in which harm caused by personal irresponsibility is being blamed on “deep pocket” defendants in an effort to extract millions of dollars. But a startling claim that the university was responsible for “organizing” the election night protest against the victory of Donald Trump could lead to public exposure of the extent to which public universities have become politicized, partisan actors.

 Lauren Holt of the UC San Diego Guardian reports:

Exactly one year after a car struck Revelle sophomore Mariana Flores as she entered Interstate-5 during the election night protests, Flores’ attorney filed a personal injury and property damage lawsuit against UC San Diego and several other entities. According to the complaint submitted to the San Diego Superior Court last Wednesday, Flores suffered wage loss, loss of earning capacity, hospital and medical expenses, general damage, property damage, and loss of personal property as a result of the incident.

Election night protest at UCSD

The protests during which Flores was injured began shortly after Donald Trump was announced the projected winner of the 2016 election. Students living in all six colleges gathered on Library Walk and spread throughout campus, chanting criticisms of the president-elect as they moved. The protest then spilled off-campus near the freeway, where demonstrators walked onto the interstate.

As an emergency vehicle was attempting to shut down Interstate-5 by driving in an “S” formation across the southbound lanes, the driver hit Flores, crushing her pelvis, fracturing her leg, and causing other serious injuries.

Flores’ attorney Gene Sullivan informed the UCSD Guardian that due to the nature of her injuries, Flores’ medical bills over the course of her life will be in the millions of dollars, so he and his client hope that the university will offer assistance in covering the costs.   

Ordinarily, someone who chooses to enter a freeway to protest is taking a serious risk of grave injury, and should bear personal responsibility for the foreseeable injuries that could result. But Flores’s attorney is claiming that she was following the lead of UCSD in doing so.

“Plaintiff was participating in a citizen protest that had been organized by the University of California, San Diego and/or the University of California Regents,” the complaint reads. “The protest continued all over campus for hours and was never stopped, controlled, or refrained by the County of San Diego, City of San Diego, State of California, University of California Regents or the University of California, San Diego.”   

Sullivan explained that there are a number of people culpable for the accident, including Flores herself, but because the university is partially responsible, it is also partially responsible for the harms and damages. Under the doctrine of tort law known as “comparative responsibility,” the jury will determine what percentages of responsibility the university and other defendants comprise for the incident and assign damages accordingly.

The claim that university organized the protests is explosive. In order to prove it, plaintiff’s attorneys will subpoena university documents that could prove highly embarrassing or worse. A public university has no justification for organizing a protest against any politician. And under tort law, it is possible that a failure to shut down the protest might be regarded as adding to culpability though that would establish the precedent that universities must shut down political protests because students might get hurt. That would become an excuse to shut down all protests.

Ms. Flores faces a terrible situation, gravely and painfully injured and requiring extensive medical care. But the effort to blame others for her poor decision-making in entering an inherently dangerous situation is as contemptible as it is common in our crazy world of personal injury law.

There is only one upside. If the university did organize the protest, the public needs to know about the politicization of its administration.

The downside is that if the discovery process of reviewing emails, memos, and other documents threatens to expose some embarrassing and possibly illegal secrets, the university could cough up millions of taxpayer dollars in a settlement that is accompanied by a confidentiality guarantee.