Anyone familiar with Ithaca is also familiar with the ubiquitous bumper sticker and City slogan “Ithaca Is Gorges”. Bridges span those gorges, right on or near Cornell University’s campus, and students traverse those bridges by foot on their way to and from classes and town. When you combine Ithaca’s gloomy climate with the Ivy League pressure cooker, it’s no surprise that many of those students (a Cornell study says about 15%) frequently contemplate suicide, including jumping from the bridges. And over the years, many have! More specifically, from 1990 to 2010, there were 29 suicide attempts, 27 of which were successful, on the seven bridges located on or near campus.
Cornell was concerned enough about the bridges’ magnet-like pull on suicide contemplators so as to undertake anti-suicide bridge renovations in 2006 or so. At that time a virtually suicide-proof alteration — the installation of nets under the bridge — was rejected apparently because it would tarnish the scenery. Instead Cornell took half-measures, like building the parapets of the bridges a bit higher, and curving them somewhat. When several more kids threw themselves to their death from those same bridges, Cornell did an about face and is now implementing the net concept.
But in the meantime, the parents of one of those recent suicides have brought a New York wrongful death case against Cornell, and the City of Ithaca as owner of the bridge in question, alleging, basically, that they should have gotten it right the first time.
Cornell and Ithaca moved to dismiss the lawsuit, but a Federal Court judge, himself a Cornell graduate, denied the motion, holding that Cornell and the City had a “duty to maintain the . . . bridge in a reasonably safe condition [so] as to prevent suicides“. The case will probably get to a jury eventually.
I know it might be hard for some people to wrap their brain around the concept of holding a University liable for a student’s self-inflicted death, but there is another way to look at it. Cornell’s failure to suicide-proof those bridges, when it knew their deadly history, and knew that hundreds of impressionable, depressed and stressed young people, whom they invited to live on their campus, would continue to traverse those bridges day in and day out, was equivalent to leaving a loaded gun on each students’ dormitory night table. If a student were to pick the gun up off the table, stick it in his mouth, and ends his life, would you blame Cornell, at least a little? Think about it!
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