November 24, 2011

Father Sues Cornell, Ithaca for $180M After Son’s Death

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Updated: The father of a Cornell student who jumped to his death in 2010 filed a lawsuit against the University, the City of Ithaca and several administrators last week, seeking $180 million in damages.

Bradley Ginsburg ’13 died in Fall Creek Gorge on Feb. 17, 2010, after jumping from the Thurston Avenue Bridge. His death was part of a string of student suicides that led to fences on bridges and intensified mental health programs on campus.

In a lawsuit filed in federal court on Nov. 21, Ginsburg’s father, Howard Ginsburg ’70, says that Cornell and Ithaca should have taken more steps to prevent suicides on bridges on or near campus.

The suit says that the “campus area became known as an iconic spot for ending one’s life” after 27 people jumped to their deaths from the bridges between 1990 and 2010.

The lawsuit alleges that Cornell and the city “were negligent, careless and reckless in failing to provide for safety and protection for vulnerable or impulsive individuals.” It also names 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.

Cornell and Ithaca knew the lack of suicide barriers on bridges posed a risk, the lawsuit contends, but they did not act to prevent students from killing themselves.

“I’ve equated this to leaving a loaded gun on the table,” Howard Ginsburg, who lives in Florida, told The Sun Sentinel of Fort Lauderdale. “Cornell for years fought putting any kind of barriers on the bridges, for environmental reasons, the gorgeous views.”

Additionally, the suit argues that Cornell and its administrators failed to notify the campus community of three student suicides during the fall semester of 2009. If those suicides had not been “kept quiet,” the lawsuit says, parents could have conducted “a mental health check” of their children.

“By failing to notify students’ parents of the fall 2009 suicide cluster,Cornell … substituted its corporate judgment for parent involvement,” the lawsuit states. Cornell “then failed to counsel, help, locate and identify vulnerable individuals on campus.”

The University does not comment on ongoing litigation, according to Claudia Wheatley, deputy University spokesperson. But “the University Counsel looks forward to a prompt dismissal by the court,” she said.

The Thurston Avenue Bridge, from which Bradley Ginsburg jumped, is owned by the City of Ithaca. But the suit holds Cornell equally responsible for the bridge, arguing that the University “has a leadership role relative to safety issues regarding the bridge.”

Within a month of Bradley Ginsburg’s death, two more students committed suicide by jumping from bridges near campus. The string of deaths prompted Cornell to post around-the-clock guards on bridges and install temporary fences to prevent additional suicides.

The University is now working with the City of Ithaca to design and build permanent barriers against people jumping from the bridges. According to the most recent plans, Cornell will install nets under six of the seven bridges on or near campus. The seventh, the Suspension Bridge over Fall Creek Gorge, will be enclosed by protective netting.

“They’re doing what they should have done a long time ago,” Ginsburg told The Sun Sentinel. “They knew about this and did nothing about it … This is way past gross negligence.”

In 1981, Cornell won another lawsuit that was filed by the parents of a student who committed suicide. The parents of Jonathan Levin ’79 sued the University and Ithaca for $1 million after Levin jumped to his death from the Stewart Avenue Bridge over Fall Creek Gorge.

The parents in that suit argued that Cornell and Ithaca were negligently responsible for their son’s death because of a lack of suicide barriers on bridges and because Levin had spent the night before his death seeking psychiatric help in Cornell’s Sage Infirmary. Levin left the infirmary without the knowledge of its staff, Cornell’s associate counsel told The Sun in 1981. A jury decided the case in Cornell’s favor.

A few years earlier, in 1977, the father of another student who jumped from a bridge sought a court order to require Ithaca to install suicide barriers. The father, Daniel Kram, took the city to court after the Board of Public Works decided not to build barriers “because of financial, esthetic and effectiveness considerations,” according to a Sun article.

A judge ruled against Kram in 1978, and no bridge barriers were installed.

Original Author: Michael Linhorst