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Tick Bites May Cost Private School $41.5 Million in Damages

A student's tick bites while on a field trip to China, which led to debilitating injuries from encephalitis, could cost a prestigious Connecticut private school $41.5 million in damages.

The case involving the Hotchkiss School in Lakeville, Conn., has been working its way through the courts for several years. On Aug. 11, the Connecticut Supreme Court issued an opinion in answer to a request from a federal appeals court that makes it appear more likely that the New York student and her family will collect on the $41.5 million federal jury award to former student Cara L. Munn.

The state high court ruled unanimously in Munn v. The Hotchkiss School that Connecticut public and private schools have a duty of care to warn students on a field trip about potential insect-borne diseases and that the hefty jury award in the case fell within the "just limits" of state law, although one judge called the award "disquietingly large."

"We believe that the normal expectations of participants in a school sponsored educational trip abroad, involving minor children, are that the organizer of the trip would take reasonable measures to warn the participants and their parents about the serious insect-borne diseases that are present in the areas to be visited and to protect the children from those diseases."

Munn was a 15-year-old completing her freshman year at Hotchkiss in 2009 when she joined the school's educational trip to China. While the group was visiting Mount Panshan, near the city of Tianjin, Munn and a few other students descended the mountain by foot and became lost walking on trails and through brush before finding their way.

Munn suffered multiple insect bites and an itchy welt, court papers say, which within 10 days became encephalitis. She became partially paralyzed and semi-comatose in a Beijing hospital when her parents flew there and had her airlifted to a New York City hospital. Munn's condition stabilized, but she has permanent disabilities, including an inability to speak, a loss of dexterity, and compromised brain functioning.

Munn's family sued Hotchkiss alleging negligence. Munn's lawyers presented evidence that a travel coordinator for the private school had learned of the dangers of tick-borne disease from a U.S. government advisory and had failed to warn students or parents about the risk or the need to be protected against it.

A jury awarded Munn $10 million in economic damages and $31.5 million for pain and suffering. Hotchkiss appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, in New York City, arguing that the school had no duty to warn Munn about the dangers of tick-borne encephalitis because the dangers could not have been foreseen.

In a 2015 ruling, a 2nd Circuit court panel agreed with the Munns that there was sufficient evidence for the jury to rule that the danger was foreseeable. But it certified two questions of Connecticut law to the state's highest court: whether state public policy supports the imposition of a duty on a school to warn about or to protect against the foreseeable risk of a serious insect-borne disease when organizing a trip abroad; and, if so, whether the jury's damages award warranted a reduction.

The Connecticut Supreme Court answered yes to the first question. The court's opinion is noteworthy for the education law community because it includes a detailed discussion of schools' duty to protect students in their care, weighing legal decisions from multiple states and across various factual situations.

What the duty schools owe to students and their parents "quintessentially entails is to exercise reasonable care in ensuring that students are educated in a safe environment free from any unreasonable risks of harm," the Connecticut high court said.

As to the second question, the court said the jury award did not merit reduction because, "although clearly generous, [it fell] within the acceptable range of just compensation."

The court quoted an observation by the federal district court that Munn's "emotional and physical suffering depict a miserable life."

Senior Justice Carmen E. Espinosa said in a concurrence that while she felt compelled to defer to the federal district court's findings and agree with her court's answers to the certified questions, she was dubious that Hotchkiss could truly have foreseen the danger to Munn.

"The jury verdict in this case ... stands for the proposition that a school has a duty to warn and protect its students against any remotely foreseeable harm that might befall them while travelling abroad," Esponisa wrote. "The range of such risks is virtually limitless. So too are the protective measures that might be taken to shield children from all those threats."

The case will now return to the 2nd Circuit court for that court to decide whether to finalize its initial inclination to uphold the $41.5 million jury award. 

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