February 20, 2014

BARELY LEGAL: No Snow Day for You

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By XIAOYUE SUN

“Cornell will close Wednesday, February 5, at 3 a.m. due to the approaching storm. Cornell plans to reopen Wednesday at 9:30 a.m. Classes that are scheduled near the 10 o’clock hour will be held.” This is part of the email that all Cornellians got the night of Feb. 4, saying that the University was going to delay opening the next morning due to inclement weather conditions caused by a snowstorm. According to the National Weather Service, the storm would cause 8–16 inches of snow, and the weather warning would remain in effect until 7 p.m. that evening. Other universities around central New York had reacted by announcing closings or delayed openings. Syracuse University canceled classes after 2:15 p.m. and Binghamton University delayed opening until 1:10 p.m.

Nearly every university has a statement to explain the considerations for closing a campus. Factors include the conditions of roads on campus and in the surrounding areas, transportation issues, storm continuation, predicted snow accumulations, extreme temperatures and wind chill. Given that we experienced all of these things on Feb. 5, would it not have been reasonable for Cornell to delay opening further to protect its community and faculty members during the snowstorm?

Some students made snarky remarks on social media about what a blessing it was that we did not need to go to class at 3 a.m.

 For those of us studying law, we cannot simply ridicule. We are trained to analyze and interpret decisions like this from a logical perspective. There is no explicit, bright-line policy to turn to when evaluating the decision to close our campus in the event of inclement weather. We must instead adapt to and weigh the changing circumstances while balancing the interests of safety and scheduling.

Even though the snow did not appear to be tapering off in the morning, many students still chose to get ready for their 10 a.m. lessons. And since all the TCAT buses did not start operating until 9:30 a.m., it was not an ideal traffic and commuting situation on the most crowded roads, especially due to the Klarman Hall construction. A large portion of students deciding to walk all the way to class led to another significant problem: the slippery sidewalks. Many roads and pathways were not plowed or salted by the 9:30 a.m. opening. The sidewalk to the new entrance of the law school, for example, was covered with compacted ice that had been compressed by people walking on it. Any injury occurring on these slippery walkways could boil down to the premises liability that property owners have for slip and fall accidents that occur on their property. Under general conditions, the property owners should be held accountable if a person slips or falls as a result of dangerous and hazardous conditions like the heavy snow.

In order for the University to be legally liable for students slipping on the sidewalk, a couple of factors have to be satisfied. The University must cause the dangerous condition and not take precautions to avoid or eliminate that danger. What happened on the morning of Feb. 5 proved that reopening the campus at 9:30 a.m. did not provide sufficient time to clear most of the major roads. In addition, if it is impossible for the University to plow all the sidewalks in a short period of time, there should be at least some clear warning signs.

It is understandable that the University has set a high threshold for cancelling classes. If we lose a whole day of classes, it is hardly possible for all faculty members to make up the material. They establish expectations for learning at the beginning of the semester when they write their syllabi. Even though the University suggested using your best judgment when deciding to come to school, when a class is held, most students and faculty members would choose to attend, whether or not their safety is being compromised. It would be unrealistic for the University to cancel full days of classes for every snowstorm. However, the University should try to make sufficient and rational time for the safe reopening of the campus. For the canceled classes, professors could alternatively give the class online if they cannot rearrange their syllabi. The tradeoff of forcing a few classes to rearrange their lesson plans is worth it for the safety of our students and faculty.

For a school ranked ninth on the list of 10 snowiest universities in the U.S., it is not surprising that Cornell is solidly in the grips of a snowy winter every year. However, just because we experience snow regularly does not mean that we can be less prudent in dealing with the consequences. On the contrary, let the snowstorms be the touchstones to test and verify the slogan, “safety first.”

Xiaoyue Sun is a LL.M candidate in the Cornell Law School. She may be reached at xs89@cornell.edu. Barely Legal runs alternate Fridays this semester.