The Connecticut Supreme Court in August supported a jury’s decision to award $41.7 million in damages to a student permanently disabled by a tick bite while on a school field trip in China, stating that schools in Connecticut are obligated to warn students and parents about risk exposures for field trips.
The court also addressed concerns brought about by its decision that this would lead to a chilling effect on educational travel abroad or an increase in similar litigation.
This comes after plaintiff Cara L. Munn, a student at the defendant private boarding school, The Hotchkiss School, brought a negligence action in federal court to recover damages resulting from injuries she sustained after contracting tick-borne encephalitis, a viral infectious disease that attacks the central nervous system, on a school field trip to China.
Munn claimed Hotchkiss was negligent by failing to warn students and their parents of the risk of exposure to tick-borne encephalitis and failing to ensure the students took protective measures against insect bites.
The jury awarded Munn $41.75 million in damages, of which $31.5 million constituted noneconomic damages, and the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut rendered judgment for Munn. Hotchkiss appealed to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, which decided there was sufficient evidence presented at trial for the jury to find Munn’s illness was foreseeable.
The Second Circuit then referred two questions to the Supreme Court regarding whether Connecticut public policy supports imposing a duty on a school to warn or protect against the foreseeable risk of a serious insect-borne disease when it organizes a trip abroad, and whether the damages awarded in this case were considered excessive. The Supreme Court affirmed that schools in Connecticut have a duty to warn students and parents of serious risk exposures regarding field trips and rejected the notion that the damages were considered excessive.
In June and July of 2007, Munn joined other Hotchkiss students and faculty on a trip to China. In July, she contracted tick-borne encephalitis after being bitten by an infected tick during a hike on Mount Panshan. As a result, she suffered permanent brain damage that is expected to impact her for the rest of her life, according to the Supreme Court opinion document.
Prior to the trip in the spring of 2007, Jean Yu, the director of Hotchkiss’ Chinese language and culture program and the leader of the trip, and David Thompson, the director of its international programs, gave the students traveling to China information about the trip, including a list of places the students would visit and an itinerary that did not indicate the students would visit a forested area, according to the opinion document.
Students and parents also received written medical advice for the trip in an email, including a hyperlink to a United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website that incorrectly sent users to a page addressing Central America rather than China. The same document, as well as a pre-departure manual produced by Thompson’s office, indicated Hotchkiss’ infirmary could serve as a travel clinic, although the infirmary was not qualified to provide travel-related medical advice, the opinion document said.
Finally, a packing list provided to the students going on the China trip included bug spray, which was listed under the heading “miscellaneous items,” the document said.
Ahead of the trip, the opinion document also said Thompson viewed the page on the CDC website directed at travelers to China. The page listed tick-borne encephalitis as a risk and provided instructions on prevention methods. At trial, Thompson admitted seeing this information at the time of the trip. No one on behalf of Hotchkiss, including Thompson, warned students or their parents about the presence of tick-borne encephalitis in forested regions of northeastern China or the need to protect against it, however, according to the opinion.
While on the field trip, the group of students, chaperones and faculty ascended Mount Panshan together on a paved pathway, dressed in shorts and T-shirts or tank tops, but they split up for the descent. While most students, teachers and chaperones rode a cable car down the mountain, Munn and some other students were permitted to walk down the mountain by themselves. On the way down, Munn and her fellow students left the paved pathway and became lost, walking on narrow dirt trails, among trees and through brush before eventually rejoining the rest of the group. Along the way, Munn received many insect bites and soon developed an itchy welt. Ten days later, she began to experience the first symptoms of tick-borne encephalitis.
She subsequently became partially paralyzed and semicomatose, but her condition eventually stabilized and improved. As a result of her illness, Munn cannot speak, has limited dexterity in her hands and has limited control over her facial muscles. Although she remains intelligent, she has compromised brain functioning that inhibits her ability to utilize her intelligence, the court’s opinion said.
Although public policy in Connecticut does not impose a duty on a school to warn about or protect against the risk of a serious insect-borne disease when organizing a trip abroad, it is widely recognized that schools are generally obligated to exercise reasonable care to protect students in their care from foreseeable harms, and there was no compelling reason to create an exception in this case, the Supreme Court found in its opinion.
Hotchkiss argued, however, that there should be no duty to warn or protect in the circumstances of this case because the chances of the plaintiff contracting tick-borne encephalitis were remote.
“Although we agree that tick-borne encephalitis is not a widespread illness, when it strikes, the results can be devastating,” the opinion document stated. “…both the likelihood and the gravity of potential harm should be taken into consideration, as well as the burden of taking adequate precautions to prevent that harm from occurring.”
Hotchkiss also challenged the amount in damages awarded, seeking a remittitur of the noneconomic portion. Although it did not claim there was any jury impropriety, it argued that the award was excessive as a matter of law. The District Court, however, rejected this claim and declined to order a remittitur. The Supreme Court concluded that the award, although sizeable, fell within the necessarily uncertain limits of just damages, the opinion document stated.
Although the District Court concluded Munn is normal in other ways, can still experience the world as a person without a brain injury would and was able to finish high school and enroll in college at the time of trial, the court also surveyed other, similar cases in which large damages were awarded.
It concluded the injuries in those cases, when considered together, provided a fair benchmark and an assurance that the award in this case was not excessive. Specifically, when the plaintiff’s award and those from the case law were broken down into annual rates of compensation, on the basis of each injured party’s remaining life expectancy, Munn’s award actually fell on the lower end of the resulting range of values, the opinion document said, adding that Munn’s life expectancy was approximately 66 years.
In its opinion, the Supreme Court also addressed concerns brought about by this lawsuit that the decision could have a chilling effect on educational travel abroad or could lead to a flood of similar litigation.
It noted that recognizing a school’s general duty to protect its students, including the responsibility to take reasonable measures to warn and protect against serious insect-borne diseases, will serve to promote safety by ensuring unnecessary risks are eliminated or reduced.
“Travel, of course, will always entail certain risks, some of which cannot be eliminated or reduced,” the court document said. “The elimination of unnecessary risks, i.e., those that can be minimized with little effort, however, should encourage, rather than dampen, enthusiasm for traveling abroad.”
The court also noted its skepticism that this recognition will lead to a substantial increase in litigation, arguing it would only allow students the opportunity to prove negligence when necessary, and it would not create a new cause of action.
The case remains on appeal at the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals.
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