By DAN REYNOLDS, senior editor of Risk & Insurance®
The death of Cornell University student Bradley Ginsburg, who committed suicide in February 2010 by jumping off the City of Ithaca's Thurston Avenue Bridge, has provoked a $180 million negligence lawsuit from his father, Howard Ginsburg.
In his federal lawsuit filed in upstate New York on Nov. 21, Ginsburg alleges the university suppressed information about a string of suicides in late 2009 on the Ithaca, N.Y. Ivy League campus and failed to take action to make the bridge safer, by installing barriers to deter someone from trying to jump from the bridge, according to news reports.
But Ginsburg may have a tough time arguing his case, if it's not dismissed outright by a judge, according to an attorney who specializes in insurance recovery matters.
Bob Horkovich, the managing partner of New York-based Anderson Kill & Olick, said the new Cornell case doesn't bear much resemblance to court cases in which insurance companies find themselves defending their clients from allegations of liability.
"It is hard to understand why Cornell is being sued here," Horkovich told Risk & Insurance®. "The bridge is not on campus and the university did not design the bridge and does not have any apparent connection to the bridge, other than the tragic event of one of its students committing suicide on the bridge."
Horkovich continued saying: "I appreciate the George Washington Bridge and can see it from my window but if somebody jumps off of the George Washington Bridge it's not my fault."
According to new reports, 15 Cornell students in the last 20 years have committed suicide by jumping off bridges that abut the campus. Ginsburg's lawsuit alleges the city and the university know the bridges that span Ithaca's gorges are magnets for despondent students who might be inclined to commit suicide by jumping off of them.
"I've equated this to leaving a loaded gun on the table," Howard Ginsburg told the Sun Sentinel of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Ginsburg's suit names Cornell President David Skorton and additional university officials.
Horkovich said insurance policies that cover universities for professional liability differ from policies that cover companies in one key respect.
Should Cornell actually be forced to construct a legal defense, the university's trustees' and officers' policy would typically require the university's insurers to immediately cover defense costs, as opposed to waiting until the case was tried and the defense costs had accumulated, Horkovich said.
"Under a T&O policy, there is an immediate obligation to defend," Horkovich said.
That's different than corporate directors' and officers' policies, otherwise known as D&O policies, in which insurers typically may wait until a case has played out before determining how much of its defense they should pay for.
In this case, the question still remains why the university is being sued at all.
"One could understand a fire in a dormitory," Horkovich said. "If somebody gets burned who is in the next floor, they could say to the university 'Why didn't you provide a dormitory for me that would be safe?' and in that case the university could be subject to a lawsuit for failing to provide a safe environment," he said.
"Why that would apply to this circumstance," Horkovich said, "is not apparent from the information that I have seen from the lawsuit."
December 1, 2011
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