In a lawsuit filed against the University this week, the parents of a student who died two years ago after falling 200 feet into a gorge say their son’s death was the “direct and proximate” result of Cornell’s negligence and carelessness.
On Aug. 28, 2010, Khalil King ’13 suffered a “skull and vertebral fracture” after falling into the Fall Creek Gorge east of the Stewart Avenue Bridge. King and a friend had been walking along the wooded trail behind the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity house.
Steven King and Alexis Mercedes Godfrey, King’s parents, contend in their lawsuit that the University had an obligation to protect students from the dangers posed by the area.
Despite Cornell’s knowledge “of the specific and extreme risk to residents and visitors of the nearly 200-foot drop from their property to the gorge below, [Cornell] failed to take any steps to prevent or correct the defective condition, unusual hazard and peculiar danger,” the lawsuit states.
In a brief statement, Cornell said it plans to contest the charges.
“The University won’t comment on pending litigation except to say that we believe this lawsuit is wholly without merit, and we will vigorously defend against it,” said Claudia Wheatley, University spokesperson.
The parents' lawsuit also claims that the steep drop is considered a “trap” under New York State law, which they say the University either knew or should have known. The parents also say there were several ways Cornell could have improved the safety of the pathway above the gorge.
“At all times herein, there was a lack of adequate lighting, a lack of any barriers preventing access to the gorge, a lack of warnings or signs indicating the danger of the gorge, and a complete absence of any protections to prevent people on the property from falling into the gorge below,” the lawsuit, first obtained by The Ithaca Journal, states.
King’s parents are seeking damages for not only their loss but also the “traumatic injuries” experienced by their son.
“Prior to his death … King lay at the bottom of the gorge below [Cornell’s] property, where he remained in a condition of conscious pain and suffering for a period of time,” the lawsuit says.
Unmentioned in the parent’s lawsuit are reports that King was inebriated at the time of his death.
The night of his death, King attended a party at a house in Collegetown, according to a police report obtained by The Sun in 2010. A witness at that party, a 17-year-old Cornell freshman, told police that he spoke with King “for a good portion of the time” that they were at the party. The witness said he observed an odor on King and asked him if he had been smoking.
“He told me he was [smoking] but he did not tell me what, when or where he had smoked,” the witness told police.
The immediate circumstances prior to King’s death were also absent in the lawsuit.
At about 3:30 a.m., King and his friend were walking by the Fiji building when, his friend told police, King began to run.
“[King] then started running at me and said in a quiet voice, ‘run, run.’ I thought that maybe because of the way he said it that he might have seen an animal and did not want to scare it,” King’s friend said.
At that point, according to the friend, both he and King started running. They ran across the McGraw Place parking lot to the wooded trail behind the Fiji fraternity. When they came to the opening of the trail, the friend said he stopped but King continued running west down the trail that leads to Stewart Avenue.
“I called for him to stop, but he didn’t,” the friend said in the statement.
King’s body was found at about 1 p.m. the next day.