027: Jumping on the Bandwagon

Stella Case No. 027, Originally Published: 18 December 2002

Cases of suicide can be tragic, especially when there is a juvenile involved. But must a suicide be a time to find someone to blame?

Marissa Imrie, 14, of Santa Rosa, Calif., hired a cab for a $150 ride to San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. She had the cabbie let her off at the south end of the bridge, a popular tourist spot at the end of a sidewalk where people can stroll across the span. The last time the cabbie saw Imrie, she was heading up that sidewalk.

The Coast Guard pulled her body from the water later the same day. She had jumped off the bridge.

Imrie’s mother, Renee Milligan, has sued the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District and its board of directors, saying the bridge authority should have built an “effective” suicide barrier on the bridge, as it is well known as the world’s most popular suicide spot. She bases her claim on California’s wrongful death statutes, and says the bridge creates a “dangerous condition on public property.”

The Golden Gate (Photo: Andrea Leopardi)

But such an argument is enough to put a jury to sleep. If there’s anything Americans know, it’s that they have rights. But how do you jazz up a suicide case a make it a rights case?

The suit claims the lack of a suicide barrier is a violation the dead girl’s Constitutional right not to be deprived of life without due process of law. Ooh! Now we’re getting somewhere! As long as we’re stretching that far, the lawyers must have thought, they threw in more: the girl’s death also infringes on the mother’s rights, too! The suit argues that Milligan’s “constitutional right of familial association” was violated.

The suit asks for a court order forcing the bridge board to erect a suicide barrier, and pay Milligan various unspecified actual and punitive financial damages.

If anyone has a “right to life” — and the corresponding right to end it — it’s the person living it. Doesn’t second-guessing that person’s decision by suing take that right away?

Sources

  • “Mother Sues GG Bridge District over Girl’s Suicide,” Bay City News, 17 December 2002

Case Status

The Bridge District filed a demurrer (essentially, a formal written objection) arguing the plaintiff had not, and could not, state a cause of action because the bridge was safe when used with due care. The trial court agreed, and sustained, tossing the case. Milligan appealed on the grounds that she could prevail “because her complaint stated a cause of action for damages based on a dangerous condition of public property,” per “Section 835” of the Government Code (emphasis added). No, the appeals court ruled in June 2004:

The term “dangerous condition” is defined by section 830, subdivision (a), to mean “a condition of property that creates a substantial (as distinguished from a minor, trivial or insignificant) risk of injury when such property … is used with due care in a manner in which it is reasonably foreseeable that it will be used.”

Persons who climb over the existing three-and-one-half-foot railing and jump to their death are doing something “no reasonable person using due care would do….” There can be no liability under those circumstances.

Here, appellant does not allege that her daughter accidentally fell from the bridge while engaged in horseplay, while leaning over the railing to gain a better view, or while posing for a photograph. Appellant admits that Marissa intentionally climbed over the existing three-and-one-half-foot safety railing and jumped. Whatever defects may or may not be present in the railing’s current design, they were not, as a matter of law, the cause of Marissa’s tragic death. The judgment [of the lower court] is affirmed.

Source: “Milligan V. Golden Gate Bridge Highway and Transportation District (No. A102843)”, Court of Appeal, First District, Division 5, California, 4 June 2004.

Letters

Bruce in Ohio: “I love the True Stella Awards. Please don’t ever start another project, because there is only so much time available for reading quality stuff like This is True, HeroicStories and the True Stella Awards. If you add anything else, I will just have to become a hermit, sitting in my cave reading and chuckling.”

Did my wife put you up to writing that, Bruce?

Brian from Indiana: “I have taken copies of TSA to work to read and most of them never come home (that’s a good thing). I work 12-14 hours a night in a factory swing shift. Having something to talk about with others around you helps to pass the time. I must say in the 7+ years I have been there yours is the ONLY publication to have made it past the two month mark. The thing is that a factory life is one that is in a way not connected to the outside world around us. We watch the news and listen to issues then turn back to the machine that seems to control us, all is forgotten [and] life goes on. To that end I say you have written, made available, read it again, something that to no end should be take lightly, jokes included. I along with some coworkers would hope that someday there are no TSA publications to talk about.”

Me too, Brian.

Jocelyn, a paralegal in New Jersey: “You guys rule! I work for a law firm and I’m not the only one here that sees how ridiculous many lawsuits are. I look forward to the newsletters because I can be thankful that this firm doesn’t take such claims. Part of me thinks that these absurd cases are an extension of everyone wanting their 15 minutes of fame.”

Fifteen minutes of fame is the old American dream; the new one is a $15 million tax-free jackpot from the litigation lottery.

My 2020 Thoughts on the Case

This is truly a tragic case, not just for the lost teen but for her mother spending a year and a half trying to avenge it, keeping her in the midst of mourning and anger instead of healing.

This was the last case of 2002, giving me 27 cases to come up with a “Winner” and several runner-ups, which were published as the 2002 Stella Awards.

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3 Comments on “027: Jumping on the Bandwagon

  1. My wife and I walked across most of the Golden Gate Bridge in 1995 (we had hiked all day so were too tired to make it all the way across and back).

    While walking up to and on the bridge, we saw many signs about life being too precious to end it and had the suicide helpline phone number listed. And I mean many: these signs were about every 50 feet or so.

    Also, at no time did we feel the railing was too low.

    I imagine not much has changed since then.

    Reply
  2. “This life is full of random deaths, and heaps of grief and shame. So few are soothed by ‘accident’; you want someone to blame.” —the Walrus, “Alice: Madness Returns”

    It seems a fundamental of life that, when a tragedy happens, we seek a scapegoat. But to push forward with litigation, you need a lawyer. Why did a lawyer accept this case? Did s/he genuinely believe that Renee was correct to sue, or — as I suspect — was it simply a matter of trying for the big bucks?

    Reply
  3. I was expecting to read that the Cabbie and the Cab company were also named as defendants for doing their job.

    It is a bit surprising, actually. -rc

    Reply

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