A federal judge denied Cornell’s motion to dismiss a lawsuit that holds both the City of Ithaca and the University responsible for a student suicide in 2010 –– a decision that will allow the case to proceed.
“[The] defendants’ duty was to maintain the Thurston Avenue Bridge in a reasonably safe condition as to prevent suicides,” Judge David Hurd ’59 wrote in his March 15 decision rejecting the University’s request.
Tommy Bruce, vice president for University communications, criticized the ruling, saying that the University is not legally responsible for the death of the student, Bradley Ginsburg ’13, who jumped off the Thurston Avenue Bridge in February 2010. Ginsburg’s father, Howard Ginsburg ’70, is seeking $180 million in damages.
“The law in New York … views the intentional act of killing oneself to be extraordinary, and does not impose liability on others for failure to prevent suicides except in very limited circumstances,” Bruce said. “These limited circumstances simply were not present in this case.”
Ginsburg’s lawsuit, which was filed in November, claims that the city and Cornell were remiss in failing to place effective suicide barriers on the bridges on or near campus. Furthermore, Ginsburg faults the University for neglecting to inform students and parents of three student suicides that occurred in the fall of 2009 –– an action that he says could have allowed parents to conduct “a mental health check” of their children, according to the lawsuit.
On Jan. 24, the University asked the court to throw out the case on the grounds that neither Ginsburg’s father nor his attorney presented any facts that could have proved their case, claiming the University could not have known of Ginsburg’s intentions. Hurd rejected this appeal.
In the original suit, Ginsburg’s father named President David Skorton, Vice President for Student and Academic Services Susan Murphy ’73, Gannett Director of Mental Health Initiatives Tim Marchell ’82 and Gannett Associate Director Gregory Eells as defendants.
But Hurd dismissed the allegations against the individual defendants on the grounds that the lawsuit “fails to state a cause of action against them.”
He acknowledged that while the defendants “were aware of the history of suicides and knew affirmative measures needed to be implemented to prevent future successful attempts,” they could not be personally implicated in Ginsburg’s death.
Despite disagreeing with Hurd’s decision, Bruce said the University was “gratified that the decision narrows the issues in the case.”
Defending the University’s conduct, Bruce emphasized that Ginsburg had never used any of the University’s mental health resources.
“Cornell has for many years invested significant resources, both human and financial, into mental health initiatives for our students, including suicide prevention,” Bruce said. “Unfortunately, Bradley Ginsburg did not avail himself of the extensive resources on the Cornell campus. All parties agree that his suicide was completely unforeseeable.”
In his decision, however, Hurd noted that there have been 29 suicide attempts between 1990 and 2010 on the seven bridges located on or near campus, saying that the University should have been aware of the risk of student suicide. While the University could not have predicted Ginsburg’s actions, he said, it could have taken more steps to prevent students in general from attempting suicide from the bridge.
“[Ginsburg’s] affirmative act of jumping from the bridge cannot be considered extraordinary or unforeseen,” Hurd said. “It was clearly foreseeable that someone may commit suicide by jumping off the Thurston Avenue Bridge.”
Though the Thurston Avenue Bridge is owned by the City of Ithaca, Hurd said that University could still be partially responsible for the consequences of failing to keep the bridge completely safe.
“Although Cornell may not legally own the bridge, it controls its design and operation,” he said. “Accordingly … Cornell and Ithaca jointly controlled and maintained the bridge … and any duty owed will be ascribed to both.”
Hurd said the renovations of the Thurston Avenue Bridge that took place between 2006 to 2007 were an unsuccessful effort to deter students from attempting suicide at the bridges on or near Cornell’s campus.
“Clearly, the redesign and reconstruction did not prevent [Ginsburg] from jumping off the bridge,” he wrote.
However, Bruce said that “public and private landowners” should not be held accountable for the actions of individuals, even if there exists a general risk.
“If the judge’s determination to recognize liability against a landowner for the unforeseeable act of an individual who commits suicide where it's ‘foreseeable that someone’ may commit suicide were to be upheld, this would mark a dramatic expansion of the law,” he said.
Bruce said the University is determined to clear its name as the proceedings move forward.
“Cornell will continue to litigate this case, vigorously, and we look forward to a prompt resolution,” he said.