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