The Connecticut Supreme Court issued a 5-0 ruling on August 11, 2017 in Munn v. The Hotchkiss School holding that schools have a duty to warn about or protect against the foreseeable risk of a serious insect-borne disease when it organizes a trip abroad. The Court also ruled that the $41.5 million verdict for the student should not be reduced.
The plaintiff was a student of The Hotchkiss School. In June and July of 2007, the plaintiff and other students and faculty of the school went on an educational trip to China. The plaintiff was bitten by a tick during a hike and contracted a viral infectious disease that attacks the central nervous system. She suffered permanent brain damage as a result.
The plaintiff filed a lawsuit against the school in the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut. The plaintiff claimed that the school was negligent in failing to warn students and their parents about the risk of exposure to insect-borne diseases and failing to ensure that the students took protective measures against insect bites before going on the hike. The jury returned a verdict in the plaintiff's favor and awarded her damages of approximately $41.5 million, $31.5 million of which were awarded for pain and suffering.
The school's challenge to the verdict was rejected by the District Court. The District Court concluded that the tick-borne encephalitis was foreseeable, the school had a duty to warn or protect the plaintiff, and the noneconomic portion of the damages was not excessive as a matter of the law. The school appealed to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. The Second Circuit agreed that the plaintiff's injury was foreseeable but did not find sufficient guidance under Connecticut law to determine the following two issues: (1) whether the school had a duty to warn or protect the plaintiff and; if so, (2) whether the jury's damage award was excessive as a matter of law. Therefore, the Second Circuit certified these two questions to the Connecticut Supreme Court. The Connecticut Supreme Court answered the first question in the affirmative and the second question in the negative.
The Connecticut Supreme Court's Decision
In reaching its decision, the Connecticut Supreme Court noted that there was ample information generally available regarding areas where there was a high risk of insect borne-diseases, and measures available to protect against them. Based on this, the Court stated that "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." The Court disagreed that its decision would have a chilling effect on international educational travel and was skeptical that it would result in any significant increased litigation.
With regard to the amount of the jury verdict, the Court stated that it was "clearly generous", but "fell within the acceptable range of just compensation."
What's the Takeaway?
The Connecticut Supreme Court's decision certainly raises already high stakes with regard to school-sponsored international travel, and particularly travel in remote areas. There are many factors that schools must consider when offering such trips to its students. At a minimum, schools must be careful to select safe areas for educational travel, carefully research the risks related to such travel, and clearly and accurately communicate those risks to students and parents.