The father of a student who jumped to his death from the Thurston Avenue Bridge in 2010 will argue in court this week that Ithaca and Cornell gave up on improving the bridge’s safety so they could maintain its views.
Howard Ginsburg is seeking tens of millions of dollars from the city and the university, contending the institutions had a duty to prevent “inevitable” suicide attempts and they failed — largely because of how they designed the bridge when it was rebuilt in 2006 and 2007.
“In every instance where design safety issues conflicted with aesthetic concerns, the safety concerns lost out,” says a trial memo Ginsburg submitted to the court.
Ithaca and Cornell disagree. The bridge’s distinctive green guardrails, which curve in toward the sidewalks and lack horizontal bars, were specifically designed to deter climbing.
“There was nothing dangerous or defective about” the bridge, Cornell says in its brief. “It served its purpose thousands of times every day as pedestrians, bicycles, and motor vehicles crossed it safely to get from one point to another.”
Jury selection for the trial — which will be heard by U.S. District Judge David Hurd, a Cornell alumnus — is set to begin Tuesday in Utica.
Bradley Ginsburg was the first of three Cornell students who committed suicide from bridges near campus in the spring of 2010. The string of deaths, two of which occurred on successive days that March, prompted a wholesale reevaluation of safety on the bridges that cross Ithaca’s iconic gorges.
Cornell posted security guards on the spans immediately after the third student’s death. Those were followed by temporary chain-link fences, which were replaced by permanent nets underneath most bridges. The university paid for all of that, even though the city owns several of the spans, including the one on Thurston Avenue.
Howard Ginsburg, who graduated from Cornell in 1970, argues that Ithaca and the university should have known additional safety measures were necessary long before his son’s death.
Instead, he says, they were worried about maintaining the span’s dramatic views of Fall Creek Gorge.
“The protection the views of the gorge from the bridge were more important to Cornell and the city than the prevention of suicides,” Ginsburg’s brief argues. “The result was tragic and irreversible: Bradley Ginsburg’s death could have been prevented if effective means restrictions had been present on the bridge. But such effective physical barriers were not present, and no longer is he.”
Court documents show the opposing sides trying to frame the case in quite different ways. Ginsburg contends that the particulars of his son’s death aren’t relevant; instead, Cornell and Ithaca are responsible because they should have known that a suicide — by someone at some point — was inevitable.
The city and university want the case to focus on Bradley Ginsburg’s particular death, not a more general consideration of suicide risk.
“The proof at trial will establish that Bradley Ginsburg made the decision to end his life and that he explained his reasoning in a note that he left on his computer,” Cornell says in its trial brief. “Neither the decision nor the explanation Bradley Ginsburg authored had anything to do with the design of the Thurston Avenue Bridge.”
Although the bridge is owned by Ithaca, Ginsburg is including Cornell in the suit because the university had significant influence over its redesign in 2006 and 2007, he says, citing discussions between Cornell and Ithaca officials during the design process. Cornell says no, it did not have enough control over the project for the legal concept of “duty of reasonable care” to apply.