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Full Circuit Court Decision

Photos-Proximity of bon fire  to campus

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Did Paul Smith's College have at least a moral obligation to act? 

One is hard pressed to argue that a moral duty did not exist to effectively intervene when Paul Smith’s College officials witnessed the dangerous activities around the bonfire on Saturday, February 6, 2005.  The overriding question was whether there was also a legal duty to act on activities occurring close to campus on adjoining property.  When considering all the facts and applicable New York law, my belief is that a legal duty should have be held to exist.   However, the courts ruled otherwise.   The reader can come to their own conclusion after considering the overall facts and what the decisions do say about the tragic events.

Consider these forewarnings of an accident waiting to happen that College employees responsible for student safety had prior to the tragic crash:

  • Seven days prior to the fatal snowmobile crash, an intoxicated Paul Smith’s student died in an automobile crash while returning from campus.   If he had made it back to campus, he would have arrived intoxicated and may have caused injuries there.
  • The evening prior to the fatal snowmobile crash, Director of Residence Life Toni Marra and two Safety Officers saw a the truck doing donuts on the lake near a bonfire.  State Police were called, but the fire was extinguished and the students dispersed prior to the State Police Officer being able to scan the lake.  After the State Police left campus, a truck was driven erratically from the lake onto a campus parking lot.   When the Marra and a Safety Officer confronted the driver, they saw empty beer containers in the truck and an a very intoxicated driver. Marra responded by taking the driver’s keys and escorting him to his dorm.
  •  Marra and Safety Officer JS went to the bonfire party as result of a report of injuries due to a snowmobile crashing into trees.  Given what they saw when present at the bonfire there was a strong likelihood that alcohol was a factor in the crash.  Two students died in a snowmobile crash on that lake only hours later.
  • The scene as described by Officer JS when Marra and he visited the bonfire party which is quoted below:

o    “A very big fire.  Approximately forty to 45 students standing around it.  Snow sleds were traveling at high rates of speed.  There was a lot of yelling and screaming.  However, I did not see one container of alcohol.”  “A few of the students standing around the fire appeared to be little bit tipped, a little bit too happy.” “Basically, balance, their balance seemed off.  They were weaving back and forth, acting abnormal. Screaming and yelling.  A few of the students that I spoke to, their eyes seemed to be bloodshot.”

o   “I mentioned to her there was a few students that I spoke to I could smell an odor associated with alcohol; erratic snowmobiles riding fast, high speeds.  This was a dangerous situation.  We need to stop it now.”  “She [Marra] said, ‘From my experience, I’ve worked a lot longer, I’ve dealt with experience with respect to this and the last thing you want to do is create a riot.”

o   Given the above, the District Court Judge concluded in his opinion: “The evidence establishes that Marra and JS did not undertake to stop the party; in fact, they adopted a hands-off approach, implying their acquiescence in the continuation of a dangerous activity that was already underway.”

Each of these individually should have been sufficient to be a forewarning to the College of the drastic events to occur, but tragically did not.   Any poll of parents would likely result in a vast majority believing that a moral obligation to effectively intervene is expected for any one of those facts alone. Most certainly, a significant number would also opine that a legal obligation to act also existed.  Is there any question that there existed at least a moral obligation to act?


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In loving Memory of Kristine Guest


Circumstances Leading to Fatal Crash

Full Circuit Court Decision

Photos-Proximity of bon fire  to campus


Governmental Failure to Enforce Failure to Enforce Federal Law to Protect Students-Confirmed-see IG Report-3/14/12