Ithaca, N.Y. — Cornell University and the city of Ithaca are being sued by the family of a graduate who fell to his death at the Cascadilla Gorge Trail in 2012.
Alan Andrew Young-Bryant, 32, was visiting Ithaca when he was killed on Dec. 5, 2012, in an 80-foot drop on the trail path. (Young-Bryant got his master’s degree from Cornell in 2007 and his Ph.D. from the university in 2011.)
Young-Bryant’s family has filed a lawsuit — made public in October — that contends Ithaca was negligent in not maintaining the gorge trail and that it “carelessly” failed to provide adequate lighting and warning signs.
Records show Young-Bryant had been drinking heavily at the Chapter House bar the night of his death, and an autopsy revealed he also had amphetamines and barbiturates in his system.
After Young-Bryant’s death, a police investigation found part of the sidewalk and railing on the trail to be “in need of immediate repair, as they pose a severe safety issue.”
Investigative police reports suggest that Young-Bryant may have fallen from this stretch of the trail.
This is at least the third time Cornell — and the second time the city — has been sued in connection with a gorge-related death since 2011.
A Cornell spokesperson said the university would not be commenting on the lawsuit, citing a policy on ongoing litigation.
City Attorney Ari Lavine said in a brief statement: “Young-Bryant’s death is an undeniable tragedy. The City looks forward to a thorough determination as to the cause of this tragedy.”
The lawsuit says the gorge trail is owned by the city and managed by Cornell Plantations.
The death of a promising scholar
He was in town to celebrate.
Young-Bryant was living in California, working for Oaktree Capital Management, and decided to return to Ithaca after his girlfriend successfully defended her thesis. It was also her birthday.
Young-Bryant was himself a highly-regarded scholar who wrote an “exceptional dissertation” on Victorian lyric expression, according to NPR.
The night of Dec. 4, 2012, Young-Bryant and his girlfriend enjoyed a bottle of champagne and wine before going to dinner.
After dinner, they went to the Chapter House, where they were joined around 8:45 p.m. by several Cornell professors and graduate students. Young-Bryant appeared “highly intoxicated,” according to witnesses.
As the girlfriend was getting ready to leave shortly after midnight, she turned around to notice that Young-Bryant had disappeared.
A woman walking her dog found his body the next morning. She called police.
“The subject was laying across the concrete trail/retaining wall, with his legs hanging over the edge,” an officer writes in police reports. “The subject appeared to have severe face and head trauma.”
Police would later determine that Young-Bryant suffered a tear in his aorta and died of internal bleeding.
Shortly after Young-Bryant’s death, police began trying to reconstruct how he died.
The documents filed in public court records do not show that the officers reached a clear conclusion.
However, police officers do note in their reports that “the subject may have fallen from a north side trail above the creek that runs east-west parallel to the creek from University Ave.”
“At the creek scene some disturbed looking loose stones and leaves tend to show the victim fell from above,” one officer writes in a police report.
Two Ithaca police officers and a sergeant went to to the elevated walking path. There, they found a metal hand rail that had been broken — the top part of the rail was bent down about 12 inches “from some previous incident,” police say.
Furthermore, the officers note, “the sidewalk has some holes in it there and the earth is eroded on the side of the sidewalk …”
“The damaged sidewalk has been marked previously with white paint outlining holes in it. Both the railing and sidewalk are in need of immediate repair as they pose a severe safety issue. It appears the subject may have fallen in that area where the railing and sidewalk are damaged.”
The lawsuit filed by Young-Bryant’s family does not say how or why he fell down creek trail.
The family’s argument
Judith Young van Wageningen is Young-Bryant’s mother.
In court documents, she says her son’s death could have been avoided if Cornell and Ithaca had heeded clear signs of danger.
In particular, van Wageningen says, Cornell and Ithaca:
— Failed to properly maintain a walking path in a “reasonably safe condition” for pedestrians.
— Didn’t provide adequate lighting of the Cascadilla Gorge Trail.
— Let the pavement on the trail become “deteriorated, pitted crumbling, cracked, broken” and strewn with holes.
The plaintiffs say “(Cornell and Ithaca) had actual and constructive notice of the dangerous and defective condition of the Cascadilla Gorge Trail” through letters and complaints filed with the city and university.
“As a result of the above, the plaintiff incurred funeral expenses, cremation expenses and other expenses for her deceased son,” the lawsuit states.
City’s legal costs mount
At least three lawsuits have been filed against Cornell connected with recent deaths in the gorges or gorge trails.
Previously, Howard Ginsburg sued Cornell and the city over the death of his son Bradley Ginsburg, who committed suicide off of the Thurston Avenue Bridge in 2010.
That lawsuit ended this September with a settlement. Cornell agreed to fund a scholarship in Bradley Ginsburg’s name, and Ithaca agreed to pay $100,000, according to records.
Additionally, in 2012, the family of Khalil King sued the university after the undergraduate fell to his death in the Fall Creek Gorge. King’s family argues that the university should have improved the safety of the path above the gorge.
That case is still winding its way through the court system. (King was also found to have had alcohol in his system the night of his death.) A judge recently dismissed Cornell’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit.
The new, third lawsuit comes to light the week after the city authorized an additional $150,000 in legal costs after a closed-door meeting of Common Council.
Young-Bryant’s family is being represented by William S. Friedlander, who has also represented the mother of a Cornell fraternity brother killed in a hazing incident in her lawsuit against the other fraternity members.