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Barrier Update: Legal precedent suggests City of Ithaca will not be held liable for gorge suicide

As you probably know by now, Howard Ginsburg is suing Cornell, the City of Ithaca, and a number of individuals affiliated with the university over his son Bradley’s suicide from the Thurston Avenue Bridge. Ginsburg, whose body was found in February 2010, was the 4th suicide at Cornell during that school year but the first involving a gorge. After two more students died by jumping, Cornell put up tall fences on all its bridges.

The lawsuit (which the Ithaca Journal has posted online ) argues that suicide barriers should have been installed sooner to prevent jumping from the bridges on campus. It also argues that Cornell should have done more to alert students and parents of the suicide cluster that was affecting Cornell.

Both Cornell and the city have vowed to fight the lawsuit. “Obviously we will oppose it,” Dan Hoffman, the city attorney, told Meta Ezra this week. “The actual defense will be handled by our insurance carrier. We do not believe the city had the duty the plaintiff claims we had. We construct our bridges following state standards and requirements.”

It’s hard to see how any court could blame Cornell for not installing barriers, when it didn't even own the bridge. The Thurston Avenue Bridge is owned by the city.

Hoffman, who has served as city attorney for six years, says he is unaware of any previous lawsuits of this type against the city.

But a similar case against the Golden Gate Bridge Highway and Transportation District in 2004 provides some insight into how this case might play out. Marissa Imrie was a minor, only 14 years old at the time she jumped from the Golden Gate Bridge. Yet when her mother, Renee Milligan, sued the bridge authority, both the trial court and an appeals court found that the bridge authority could not be held liable for her death.

“We conclude reasonable minds will reach but one conclusion as to whether the lack of a suicide barrier is a dangerous condition,” reads the judges’ decision in that case. “By definition, persons who use the bridge to commit suicide are not using the bridge in a manner used by the general public exercising ordinary care.   As a matter of law, the Bridge District cannot be held liable for its failure to install a suicide barrier to protect those who intentionally use the bridge without due care.”

Dan Jost | Posted on December 05, 2011 (#)

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