July 17, 2014

Lawsuit Against Cornell Over 2010 Gorge Death May Continue, Court Rules

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A lawsuit charging the University with negligence after a sophomore student fell 200 feet into a gorge to his death in 2010 will not be dismissed, the appellate division of the New York State Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

The parents of Khalil King ’13 sued Cornell in August 2012, just two years after their son suffered a “skull and vertebral fracture” after falling into the Fall Creek Gorge on Aug. 28, 2010 while walking along a trail behind the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity house.

Khalil King ’13 died after falling into the Fall Creek Gorge in 2010. His parents sued the University for negligence in 2012.

Steven King and Alexis Mercedes Godfre, Khalil King’s parents, claim in their lawsuit that Cornell did not provide adequate lighting, warnings or signs about the dangers of the gorge or barriers preventing gorge access.

Cornell attempted to dismiss the case, according to court documents, arguing that it was shielded from liability due to a law that “grants a special immunity to owners … from the usual duty to keep places safe” when individuals use the land for specified recreational activities, including hiking.

Ultimately, the New York State Supreme Court denied Cornell’s motion in August 2013. The University then appealed that decision.

The appellate division of the Supreme Court, however, agreed with the previous court in a decision released Thursday, arguing that the trial should continue.

“In our view, the adequacy of the warnings and the safety measures taken remain questions of fact for resolution at trial,” the justices said. “Accordingly, [the] defendant has failed to demonstrate, as a matter of law, that it is entitled to summary judgment dismissing the complaint.”

The justices of the appellate division agreed with the Supreme Court, arguing that Cornell did not establish that King was hiking under the law the University claims protects it at the time of his death.“Cornell has been casual about protecting the students. The school has a duty to provide a safe campus.” — Attorney Leland T. Williams in 2012

Cornell also claimed that since the dangers of the gorge were “open and obvious,” the University was not responsible to warn of any hazards.

The appeals division, on the other hand, again agreed with the Supreme Court and said that it could not be determined whether “the cliff’s edge was visible and obvious or presented a latent, dangerous condition necessitating an appropriate warning.”

In a brief statement, the University said that “the matter will now proceed to the next stage of litigation.”

“The University does not ordinarily comment on pending litigation and so has no further comment at this time,” said Joel Malina, vice president for university relations.

Police documents obtained by The Sun in October 2010 revealed that King’s fall into the gorge occurred after he attended parties in Collegetown and on West Campus and was reportedly inebriated, which The Sun reported did not appear in the original lawsuit against Cornell.

At a house party in Collegetown on Friday, Aug. 27, 2010, a then 17-year-old Cornell freshman told police that he and King spoke “for a good portion of the time” while at the party.

“He told me he was [smoking] but he did not tell me what, when or where he had smoked,” the witness told police.

Later at around 3:30 a.m., King and his friend were walking past the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity — also known as “Fiji” — when King began running.

“[King] was by the side of the [Fiji] building when he started to motion to me to back up,” the friend told police. “[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.”

After this point, both he and King began to run across the McGraw Place parking lot to the wooded trail behind Fiji, according to police documents. Upon their arrival at the opening of the trail, the friend said he stopped while King continued running down the trail towards Stewart Avenue.

“I called for him to stop, but he didn’t,” the friend said in a statement to police.

The exterior of the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity, also known as “Fiji,” on McGraw Place. In 2010, Khalil King ’13 fell to his death into the Fall Creek Gorge after running down a wooded trail behind the Fiji fraternity. (Tyler Alicea / Sun Managing Editor)