What responsibility, if any, does a school or city have for the prevention of suicide by a certain means? This question may seem morbid, but the answer will be important in a New York lawsuit that was recently given clearance to proceed. The lawsuit for wrongful death and premises liability was filed against Cornell University and the city of Ithaca after a student committed suicide by jumping off an on-campus bridge in 2010.
The lawsuit has been in a state of limbo for several years, and some of the initial claims made by the victim’s father have been dismissed. But last month, a U.S. district court judge ruled that some important aspects of the lawsuit may now proceed against the university and the city.
If the student’s suicide had been an isolated incident, the case may not have gained the attention or legitimacy it has received. But between 1990 and 2010, the student was one of 27 people who committed suicide on campus or near it. Of those victims, approximately half had jumped from bridges.
In light of this, it stands to reason that the university and the city knew that suicide was a risk associated with the bridges on and near campus, including the Thurston Avenue Bridge where the plaintiff’s son had jumped. Moreover, the university and the city had an opportunity to address the issue when the Thurston Avenue Bridge was reconstructed in 2006 and 2007.
The judge recently ruled that the city of Ithaca did not conduct a formal study before reconstruction on what is called “means restriction.” This refers to efforts to limit access to known suicide methods that often prove lethal. Because the study was not conducted, the city was not granted immunity from liability.
Cornell owns the property on either side of the Thurston Ave Bridge but does not own or control the bridge. However, it did give significant input during the phase of reconstruction regarding design of the new bridge. After reconstruction, the railings on the redesigned bridge were actually lower than on the original bridge.
To be clear, the judge’s ruling has only allowed the lawsuit to proceed. It will now be up to a jury to decide whether and to what extent the school and city are liable. But whatever is ultimately decided, this case should serve as a cautionary tale to other schools in New York and around the country.
Source: Ithica Journal, " Judge rules Cornell, Ithaca can be sued over 2010 bridge suicide," D.W. Nutt, March 25, 2014