Note: This story discusses suicide and the details of how someone died by suicide. If you are at risk or know someone who has died by suicide, this story could be triggering.
If you're experiencing thoughts of self harm or suicide, help is available through the West Virginia Division of Health and Human Resources 24 hours a day at 1-844-HELP-4-WV (1-844-435-7498) or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
A claim made by the widower of a woman who died after stepping off the New River Gorge Bridge could force the West Virginia Division of Highways to adopt policies meant to lower the risk of people dying by suicide.
The West Virginia Claims Commission on Wednesday delayed a decision on whether to dismiss a claim brought by Roy Fernatt, whose wife, Denise, died by suicide in August 2017 after he said she suffered from depression and was bullied by former friends and acquaintances and fired from her job.
Roy Fernatt filed the claim against the Division of Highways on Aug. 5, arguing that Highways officials had not taken proper precautions to install suicide barriers on the bridge even though 21 people had died by suicide by jumping off the bridge between its opening in 1977 and 2015, said Roy Fernatt’s attorney, Michael Clifford.
“What’s unusual about the New River Gorge Bridge that I don’t think happens to other bridges is there is such emphasis on it in October of each year,” Clifford said. “The height of the bridge is a magnet for people who have problems and think that’s the way out.”
Commissioner David Cecil told Clifford and Division of Highways attorney Travis Haley that he wants them to exchange information about the case before the next hearing.
Clifford said it’s his intention to share all of the information he has about the case, as well as any information that comes to light amid a separate case in Kanawha Circuit Court against the people whom Roy Fernatt said bullied his wife and publicly posted and shared on social media photos of her in lingerie the week before her death.
During the hearing in the Senate Judiciary meeting room, Haley told the Claims Commission that, while the bridge is the responsibility of the Division of Highways, the division needs more information before moving forward in a case that could substantially affect DOH policy.
“There’s far more reaching implications in this matter than just this bridge — on the entire state road system, arguably,” Haley said.
Suicide barriers are not commonplace during bridge construction, but they aren’t unheard of.
A $211 million suicide barrier is under construction on the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, according to The San Francisco Chronicle. Construction of the barrier began in 2018 and is expected to be completed next year.
In Toronto, the Prince Edward Viaduct had the second-highest rate of suicide in North America, after the Golden Gate Bridge, until a $3.5 million suicide barrier was constructed along the viaduct in 2003.
Whether a suicide barrier goes up as a result of Fernatt’s case, Clifford said the issue needed to be raised with the State Road, given the degree to which West Virginia promotes the bridge.
“The next time this happens, [the Division of Highways] will certainly be on notice that suicide is a foreseeable outcome for the use of that bridge,” Clifford said.