A USC student died last December after a campus public safety officer’s car crashed into hers.
Ambition brought Kelsey Dresser to the University of Southern California, where the aspiring therapist from Carlsbad enrolled in graduate school.
But the 23-year-old student’s goal to become a mental health counselor was cut short last December, when she turned her red convertible into the university’s South Los Angeles campus.
A USC public safety officer’s patrol cruiser allegedly traveling at nearly three times the speed limit smashed into Dresser’s 1995 Chrysler LeBaron, pushing it about 40 feet. She died the following day.
Los Angeles city prosecutors have filed a misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter charge against Public Safety Officer Miguel Guerra, a rare step in a crash involving an on-duty law enforcement officer.
The complaint alleges that Guerra, 37, was speeding and negligent. He has pleaded not guilty.
On Wednesday, Dresser’s parents sued Guerra and USC, alleging the private university provided inadequate training for the officer that led to her death.
“The responsibility falls on USC,” said Craig McClellan, a San Diego-based attorney representing Jill and Michael Dresser. “It’s especially hurtful when something like this is caused by someone who is supposed to protect the students, not kill them.”
Guerra’s defense attorney, William Genego, declined to comment.
USC spokesman Eddie North-Hager said the university was unable to comment on the litigation and directed The Times to a statement issued shortly after Dresser’s death.
“This was an unprecedented and heartbreaking event for the entire USC community, and our condolences go out to the family and friends of Kelsey Dresser,” the statement said.
Dresser was heading west on Jefferson Boulevard at about 6:30 a.m. Dec. 3, 2015, and turned left across traffic into the Royal Street entrance to campus, police said.
Guerra was heading east on Jefferson, responding to a report of a “stranger” in a parking garage, when he T-boned Dresser’s car, McClellan said.
The Dressers’ attorney said the crash data storage system in the officer’s car showed he was driving at 69 mph with the gas pedal pressed to the floor before the collision. The system, known as a vehicle’s “black box,” records a car’s operational data in the five seconds before a collision. Guerra slammed on the brakes a half-second before impact, the Dressers’ attorney said in the lawsuit.
The posted speed limit at the intersection was 25 mph, according to the lawsuit.
The officer’s emergency lights, siren and headlights were not activated, the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit contends that Guerra was sleep-deprived from working two consecutive graveyard shifts, and attorneys noted that inside the officer’s cruiser were two energy drinks.
“He had been trying to keep himself amped,” McClellan said, contending that tiredness from working the overnight shift would have slowed his reaction time.
After the impact, Dresser's vehicle skidded about 40 feet, according to the lawyer, and her head banged against her car, causing internal injuries and brain damage. She was rushed to the hospital and pronounced dead the next day. The coroner lists the cause of death as traumatic head injuries.
Dresser had Marfan syndrome, an inherited disorder that weakens tissue that holds together skin, muscles and organs and is marked by enlarged hands and feet, impaired vision and heart issues. Health conditions related to Marfan syndrome were listed as a contributing cause to her death, along with a rare heart condition that can lead to sudden death.
Dresser was on a heart transplant waiting list and she also had a history of seizures; her last known seizure was in 2012, according to the coroner’s report.
McClellan, the attorney, said Dresser was not hindered by medical issues and kept an active, physically fit lifestyle. Marfan syndrome, he said, “had no effect on her ability to do things as any other person her age.”
The lawsuit, which was filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court, contends that Guerra was not properly trained or supervised by USC's Department of Public Safety. Dresser’s parents are seeking unspecified damages as well as reimbursement for medical, funeral and burial costs.
The L.A. city attorney’s office filed the charge against Guerra on July 5.
Guerra could not be reached for comment. A spokesman for USC said Guerra is not on active patrol but did not release further details about the officer’s employment status.
Dresser began her graduate studies in marriage and family therapy last summer at USC’s Rossier School of Education, Karen Symms Gallagher, dean of the university’s education school, said in a statement.
During undergraduate studies in psychology at UC Santa Barbara, Dresser was a research assistant at an autism center and worked with a nonprofit group that promotes awareness about mental health issues among students.
“Kelsey had hoped to pursue counseling in a public community mental health clinic before achieving her long-term goal of establishing a private practice,” Symms Gallagher said in the statement.
USC student killed in crash with campus police cruiser; LAPD investigating
The LAPD is investigating a crash in which a USC student was killed when one of the university's patrol cars struck her vehicle near campus. (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles police are investigating what led to a traffic crash in which a USC student was killed last week when a university police cruiser smashed into her vehicle near a campus entrance, authorities said Friday.
USC identified the victim as Kelsey Dresser, a first-year graduate student.
The Dec. 3 collision occurred when she was driving westbound along Jefferson Boulevard and made a left turn at Royal Street, near an entrance gate to the University Park campus, said LAPD Lt. Charles Springer.
The USC Department of Public Safety's patrol car was traveling eastbound on Jefferson Boulevard when it struck Dresser's vehicle, according to police. Police say the collision occurred about 6:30 a.m.
Dresser, who graduated from UC Santa Barbara in 2014 with a degree in psychology, suffered brain damage and was taken to a hospital with severe injuries, said LAPD Officer Aareon Jefferson, a department spokesman. The 23-year-old died the following day.
There’s no indication that either driver was under the influence at the time of the collision. Jefferson said he did not know what speed either vehicle was traveling during the moments leading up to the crash.
The investigation has so far determined that the the major cause of the crash was Dresser's left turn, Jefferson said.
A spokesman for USC’s Department of Public Safety, Deputy Chief David Carlisle, said in an email that the officer was alone in the patrol car and remains off-duty while recuperating from the collision. The cruiser “sustained major damage,” Carlisle added.
He declined to say whether the officer suffered injuries or to release his name, citing the officer's privacy. He referred further questions about the collision to the LAPD.
In a statement, the head of USC’s campus police, Chief John Thomas, called the collision “an unprecedented and heartbreaking event for our department.” Thomas offered condolences to Dresser’s family and friends as well as to the university community.
Dresser began her graduate studies in marriage and family therapy this summer at USC’s Rossier School of Education, said Karen Symms Gallagher, dean of the university’s education school. During undergraduate studies at UC Santa Barbara, Dresser was a research assistant at an autism center and worked with a nonprofit group that promotes awareness about mental health issues among students.
“Kelsey had hoped to pursue counseling in a public community mental health clinic before achieving her long-term goal of establishing a private practice,” Symms Gallagher said in a statement.