Relatives of fatal DUI crash victims file lawsuit against UC

Milanca Lopez at her Cal graduation in 2012, walking with her parents and her son. (Photo via Facebook)
Milanca Lopez at her Cal graduation in 2012, walking with her parents and her son. (Photo via Facebook)

Update, June 12: The 25-year-old UC Berkeley graduate student who was convicted of killing his girlfriend and her 6-year-old son last year in a drunk driving crash was sentenced to prison for six years earlier this week, according to the Oakland Tribune. According to reports, Jose Lumbreras will be released in about two years after receiving credit for time served.

Original story, May 24: The parents of a UC Berkeley grad, who died along with her 6-year-old son last year after a fatal drunk driving crash in central Berkeley, have filed a lawsuit against the University of California and the man found guilty of causing the crash.

Authorities said UC Berkeley graduate student Jose Lumbreras hit a traffic roundabout at 64 mph and crashed his car into a tree on May 18, 2012, killing his girlfriend Milanca Lopez, 22, and causing injuries that resulted in the death of Lopez’s son, Xavier, a week later. Lumbreras reportedly had a blood-alcohol level of 0.219%, more than twice the legal limit, when he crashed on California Street near Allston Way at about 1:15 a.m. People familiar with the case said Lopez and Lumbreras had been out drinking to celebrate Lopez’s recent graduation. She was planning to attend UCLA in the fall to pursue a master’s degree.

Last week, Lumbreras pleaded no contest on two counts of gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated; he was found guilty of the charges. The Alameda County district attorney’s office is requesting the maximum 12 years in prison, according to deputy district attorney Teresa Drenick.


Milanca and her son, Xavi, at her graduation last year. (Photo via Facebook)
Milanca and her son, Xavi, at her graduation last year. (Photo via Facebook)

Earlier this month, attorneys representing Medardo and Margarita Lopez, the parents of Milanca, filed a 32-page lawsuit against UC Berkeley, Lumbreras, a University Village staff member and other unnamed individuals the plaintiffs argue were negligent and whose lack of action ultimately resulted in the deadly car crash.

According to the lawsuit, the young couple’s relationship was tumultuous and marked by repeated verbal, physical and sexual abuse that caused police to be called to their home in Albany’s University Village multiple times. Attorneys allege that Lumbreras’ drinking led to many of the problems. Two weeks before the fatal crash, they said Lopez reached out, by phone and email, to a staff member at UC family housing complex University Village to alert him of several recent domestic violence incidents that had taken place.

Attorneys claim the staff member, Cephas John — and by extension the UC regents — was in a position to take steps to prevent subsequent problems, and should have been aware of the alleged pattern of abuse.

“This is an action for damages arising out of a graduate student-teacher and supervisor’s physically abusive relationship with an undergraduate student which deprived the student victim of educational opportunities, the life of her minor child, and her own life,” write the attorneys, Joel H. Seigal and Richard L. Richardson.

Jose Lumbreras, as a graduate student at UCSB. Photo: UCSB
Jose Lumbreras, as a graduate student at UCSB. Photo: UCSB

According to the lawsuit, the couple met during the fall semester of 2011, when Lumbreras was a graduate student instructor in Cal’s Department of Ethnic Studies. Lopez was an undergrad who volunteered with organizations in the department. By January, attorneys allege, Lumbreras had begun to publicly insult Lopez in front of other students, calling her sexual slurs and saying she was “not Mexican enough.”


That same month, according to the lawsuit, Lumbreras sexually assaulted Lopez in front of her son and other UC students at his home. In March, Lumbreras moved into Lopez’s University Village apartment. In late April, after an argument that left Lopez “visibly upset and crying,” she called a friend to say that he was “punching and kicking” her in the apartment. Attorneys say Lumbreras hung up the phone and wouldn’t let the friend speak with Lopez after a call back. Minutes later, friends showed up at the apartment to check on her.

She “ran out of the apartment half dressed, crying, screaming, in a panic while holding her six year old child,” according to the lawsuit. “Milanca repeatedly cried that Defendant [Lumbreras] was punching and kicking her while her child was present.” Witnesses noticed fresh bruises on her arms and thighs. She went to stay at a friend’s home but, later that night, Lumbreras came looking for her. He was “noticeably intoxicated, belligerent, volatile, and smelled of alcohol while banging on the neighbor’s door” for 45 minutes. She returned home in the morning to find many of her possessions broken and scattered around the apartment.

Click to see the lawsuit.
Click to see the lawsuit.

In May, University of California police officers were called to the apartment twice, but took no action, according to the lawsuit.

Attorneys say the abuse, which culminated in the fatal crash, was the result of an escalating pattern of racial and sexual harassment, and that UC should have been aware of what was going on, and both reported it and taken steps to stop it. They cite, in addition to violations of the Civil Rights Act, various types of negligence, as well as premises liability, infliction of emotional distress and assault and battery.

“Defendant Lumbreras was allowed to harass, intimidate, and physically beat Milanca both publicly and in private on numerous occasion,” according to the lawsuit. “Defendants acts took place at numerous locations throughout campus and in front of numerous U.C. students, in Milanca’s home, the Defendant’s home, and at the home of Milanca’s neighbor. Defendant Lumbreras even regularly harassed, intimidated, and beat Milanca in front of her minor child, Xavier C.”


Attorneys claim the regents acted with “deliberate indifference” to the abuse, and failed to “supervise, prohibit, control, or regulate” Lumbreras, who was employed by the university, to protect Lopez and her son. They are seeking general damages, special damages, loss of earnings, damages to personal property, interest, and costs including attorney’s fees.

Click to view the letter.
Click to view the letter.

Last week, the plaintiff’s attorneys also sent a letter to the university noting that at least a dozen UC employees had written, using UC letterhead, to the Alameda County superior court on behalf of Lumbreras. The attorneys described the use of UC letterhead as a potential ethics violation, and asked UC to direct its president to write to the judge in Lumbreras’ case to say those letters did not represent UC’s official position, and reprimand the employees who had used the official stationery. They also asked UC to take a firm stand on sentencing, to push for the full 12 years.

“Portraying Lumbreras as an individual with stellar character, on U.C. letterhead, without equally publishing credible allegations of domestic violence, excessive alcohol consumption and physical and emotional violence against women and a child, is contrary to the mission of an enlightened university,” wrote the attorneys.

UC Berkeley spokesman Dan Mogulof said earlier this week that the university had only recently received the attorneys’ letter and the lawsuit, and not yet had access to the letters that had been sent to the court.

“We deeply regret the loss of innocent life in this horrible accident and know how difficult this must be for Ms. Lopez’s family,” he said. “However, according to authorities, the accident occurred when Mr. Lumbreras was inebriated, and we do not believe there was anything the University could have done to prevent him from getting behind the wheel of that car.”

Mogulof said the university is still in the process of reviewing the lawsuit, and could not comment further on its claims and allegations.

Lumbreras’ defense attorney did not respond to a request for comment. According to the Alameda County sheriff’s department, Lumbreras remains in custody at Santa Rita Jail, where he’s been incarcerated since last July. (Last year’s crash left him with significant injuries and he was hospitalized for several months afterward.) Lumbreras is set for a sentencing hearing June 11 at the Rene C. Davidson Courthouse in downtown Oakland.

Milanca and Xavi. (Photo via Facebook)
Milanca and Xavi. (Photo via Facebook)

Audra Casanova, a close friend of Milanca Lopez, said many of Lopez’s friends and family members had attended court last week the day Lumbreras was set to begin trial.

“We are very relieved to not have to go through what could have possibly been a heart wrenching and drawn out trial forcing us to relive the horrible details. I wouldn’t say it provides any closure, if there can ever be such a thing but we are hoping that justice will be served,” she said, via email. “We are focusing on keeping the positive, loving, strong memory of both Milanca and Xavier alive.”

She said plans are in motion for a dedication ceremony of a mural Milanca’s friends and family created shortly after last year’s crash.

“The reality is that nothing, nothing will ever bring them back,” she wrote. “No trial or decision will ever allow for me to wrap my arms around my beautiful friend again. Nothing will allow me to hear Xavier’s unique, playful, raspy voice again. I will never be able to share a meal with them, lovingly prepared by Milanca. In this way, there is no justice.”

Related:
6-year-old boy dies of injuries from drunk driving accident [05.29.12]
Berkeley man charged with manslaughter in fatal crash
[05.23.12]
Car strikes tree in central Berkeley; kills one, injures two [05.18.12]

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