Cornell Bridge Suicide Lawsuit Continues

In a decision issued on March 15, 2012 in Ginsburg v. Cornell University et. al., 11-cv-01374, the court denied defendants’ motion for a judgment on the pleadings, permitting the lawsuit – brought by the father of a Cornell student who killed himself by jumping off the Thurston Avenue Bridge (pictured) near the Cornell campus – to continue.  Plaintiff contends that the defendants were negligent by failing to implement adequate suicide prevention measures on the bridge.

Initially, plaintiff sufficiently alleged that Cornell and Ithaca jointly controlled the bridge and, therefore, both owed the decedent a duty to maintain the bridge in a reasonably safe condition to prevent foreseeable suicides.

The court rejected defendant’s argument that the suicide was unforeseeable, noting that “the possibility that [decedent] in particular would commit suicide is irrelevant” and that “[i]t was clearly foreseeable that someone may commit suicide by jumping off” the bridge:  “[T]he history of suicides and suicide attempts, defendants’ public acknowledgment of the phenomenon, and the bridge’s accessibility to a student population—fifteen percent of which regularly considers suicide—shows defendants had actual, or at least constructive, knowledge that a suicide attempt from the bridge was foreseeable.”

Plaintiff also sufficiently alleged “that defendants knew suicides were likely to occur or recur on the area bridges but failed to take reasonable measures to prevent such conduct despite an opportunity to do so.”  In particular, the court noted that the redesign/reconstruction upon which defendants relied nevertheless failed to prevent the decedent’s suicide.  It was premature to determine, on defendants’ motion, that the bridge was not in an unreasonably dangerous condition when plaintiff’s son jumped.

As to defendants’ argument that the “affirmative act of jumping from the bridge was an intervening, superseding act that cut off any liability on their part”, the court held that, in light of the fact that “defendants’ duty was to maintain the [bridge] in a reasonably safe condition as to prevent suicides” and that “one of the purposes of the … redesign and reconstruction of the bridge was to fulfill that obligation”, the decedent’s “affirmative act of jumping from the bridge cannot be considered extraordinary or unforeseen” in a situation where, as here, “the intervening act is itself the foreseeable harm that shapes the
duty imposed”.  In these circumstances, “the defendant who fails to guard against such conduct will not be relieved of liability when that act occurs”.

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