Skip to Main Content

Family of College Student Killed in California Files Wrongful Death Lawsuit (Nearly 30 Years Later)

In January of 2024, the Los Angeles Times  reported that the family of a college student, Kristin Smart, who was murdered on campus three decades ago has filed a wrongful death lawsuit. The murder happened at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. Her family now alleges that the university knew and should have known that the killer—a man named Paul Flores who was convicted in 2023—was dangerous. Here, our Stockton wrongful death lawyer provides a more comprehensive overview of the case. 

The Tragic Story of Kristin Smart: Went Missing After a College Party in 1996

The tragic and heartbreaking story of Kristin Smart begins with her disappearance on May 25, 1996. At that time, the 19-year-old was just finishing her freshman year at California Polytechnic State University at the campus in San Luis Obispo. She vanished after attending an off-campus party. Notably, she was last seen in the company of Paul Flores, who was another student at school. Ms. Smart was being escorted part way back to her dormitory but she never arrived. Despite being reported missing two days later, initial police response was slow. Campus police and local police both were working on a (false) initial assumption that she might return of her own accord. 

Paul Flores—who was known for his negative reputation among women at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo—became a person of interest early in the case due to inconsistencies in his story. Alarmingly, he also had a suspicious black eye that he could not satisfactorily explain. Over the years, despite significant public attention, including missing-person posters and billboards, the case saw little progress due to a lack of concrete evidence linking Mr. Flores to Kristen Smart’s disappearance​​.

After Decades, Paul Flores (A Long-Time Suspect) Was Arrested, Charged, and Convicted

After decades of mystery and investigation, the long-awaited conviction of Paul Flores marked a significant moment in a case that captivated and haunted the community of San Luis Obispo. Mr. Flores was arrested in April 2021. As noted, he was a long-time suspect in the disappearance of Kristin Smart. Despite the absence of Kristin’s body—a crucial piece of evidence that eluded authorities for years—her family was unwavering in its fight for justice. 

Given the high-stakes and high emotions in the local community, the criminal trial in this case was held in nearby Salinas. It lasted for three months and it concluded with Paul Flores being convicted of first-degree murder. The conviction brought closure to a case that had lingered in the public consciousness for more than two decades. Subsequently, Mr. Flores was sentenced to serve 25 years to life in state prison. 

A Civil Wrongful Death Lawsuit Filed Against California Polytechnic

The family of Kristen Smart is now taking civil legal action against California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. In January of 2024, her parents filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the public university. The lawsuit alleges negligence on the part of the school and contends that its failure to take proper safety precautions contributed to the murder of their daughter. Specifically, the wrongful death complaint emphasizes that: 

  • California Polytechnic State University failed to address previous allegations that Paul Flores—the student who was recently convicted of Kristin’s murder—had stalked and harassed women on campus. 

By highlighting the university’s alleged disregard for student safety, the Smart family seeks not only justice for Kristin but also to ensure that future generations of students are protected. A wrongful death lawsuit is a civil cause of action. It can be brought by eligible family members of the deceased. A defendant can be held civilly liable for a criminal act of a third party (homicide) if that defendant’s failure to take due care contributed to the attack. 

Statute of Limitations May Be Raised as a Defense in the Wrongful Death Claim

The statute of limitations is a law that sets the maximum time after an event within which legal proceedings may be initiated. What is the statute of limitations for a civil wrongful death lawsuit in California? As a general baseline, it is two years. In other words, families generally have two years from the date of their loved one’s death to file a wrongful death lawsuit against the responsible party. Of course, the wrongful death lawsuit filed against California Polytechnic State University comes nearly 28 years after the murder. While the university has yet to make any specific public comments about the wrongful death litigation, most legal observers expect that the defense will argue that the claim is barred due to expiration of the statute of limitations. 

However, the matter is not so clear-cut. There are some exceptions to California’s two-year statute of limitations for wrongful death claims. One potential avenue is the “discovery rule,” which allows the statute of limitations to start running when the plaintiff discovers or should have discovered the harm. Given the recent conviction of Paul Flores in late 2022 for Kristin’s murder, the family can contend that the full extent of the university’s alleged negligence and its impact only became fully apparent following this conviction. Notably, the body of Ms. Smart has still never been found. Without a body and without a criminal conviction (which happened in 2022), there was some—albeit very small hope—that Ms. Smart was still alive. The family can argue that the wrongful death statute of limitations did not begin to run until the murder conviction of Paul Flores. 

Schedule a Free Consultation With a Top-Tier Stockton Wrongful Death Attorney

At Redkey Gordon Law Corp, our Stockton wrongful death lawyer is a compassionate, experienced advocate for grieving families. If you have any specific questions or concerns about the wrongful death claims process, we are here as a legal resource. Contact us today to arrange your confidential, no cost initial appointment. With an office in Stockton, our law firm handles wrongful death cases in San Joaquin County and throughout the entire wider region in Central California.