By Edmund H. Mahony
Duty to Warn
The state Supreme Court said Friday that schools have a duty to warn parents and students of potential hazards associated with field trips – in particular, dangerous insect bites – and let stand a $41.7 million verdict to a student who was disabled after developing encephalitis from a tick bite while on a school trip to China.
The high court clarified what it called the "affirmative duty" of schools to protect children in their care. But its decision does not definitively settle a case that insurers, schools and educational associations argue will determine how, or even if educational travel is offered in the future.
The case is on appeal at the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals, which referred it to the state Supreme Court for resolution of two questions: Are schools obligated by Connecticut policy and law to warn of the danger of contracting an insect-borne illness on field trips? And was a $41.7 million verdict excessive?
"It is a very powerful decision," said attorney Antonio Ponvert, who sued for the student and her family. "It says it has been, it is and it will continue to be the policy of the state to protect children."
The case turns on a suit involving Cara Munn of New York, who at age 15 and at the conclusion of her freshman year at the private Hotchkiss School in Salisbury, was bitten by a tick and developed encephalitis while hiking in a remote, mountainous area of China during a school study program.
As a result, she suffered permanent brain damage and became seriously disabled. She has lost control over some movement, has lost problem-solving ability and is unable to speak. Her condition is expected to worsen with age.
She and her family sued the school for negligence and a federal jury in Bridgeport returned the staggering verdict in 2013, ordering the school to pay her and her family her $10.25 million in economic damages and $31.5 million for pain and suffering.
Lawyers for Hotchkiss continue to argue that the school had no duty to warn Munn and her parents against contracting tick-borne encephalitis on 2007 trip because such an event could not have been foreseen.
School Failed to Inform
The federal appeals court disagreed, saying the school could have learned about tick-borne illness in China through a government travel advisory.
In fact, Munn presented evidence at trial that a travel coordinator for Hotchkiss learned through a government publication of the danger of tick-borne disease in the travel area and how to protect against it, but did not provide the information to students or parents.
The federal trial court in Bridgeport and the appeals court in New York said dangerous insect bites were foreseeable and the school was obligated to warn parents. But the appeals court asked the state Supreme Court for an opinion on whether public policy in the state might somehow diminish the duty to warn.
There have been cases in the past in which the state Supreme Court has reversed verdicts against schools for failing to warn students about sports injuries because public policy encourages vigorous athletic competition.
"Because it is widely recognized that schools generally are obligated to exercise reasonable care to protect students in their charge from foreseeable dangers, and there is no compelling reason to create an exception for foreseeable serious insect-borne diseases, we conclude that the imposition of such a duty is not contrary to Connecticut public policy," the Supreme Court said in Friday's decision.
The federal appeals court also was concerned that the size of the verdict could increase child safety litigation and negligence claims arising from educational trips.
The court, in the decision written by Chief Justice Chase Rogers, said in a footnote that the concern was unjustified because Hotchkiss has continued its foreign travel programs and that a quarter of the student body participates.
There also is no evidence that the verdict has "spurred additional, unwarranted litigation." The court said it has found only one, similar suit filed on behalf of a child who developed Lyme disease while at a Connecticut summer camp. That suit also was filed by Ponvert and settled confidentially.
The decision disappointed insurers, schools and educational associations, several of whom joined the case to argue that it will curtail educational travel because no educators can anticipate all potential hazards.
"There is no doubt this decision will have a deeply chilling effect on the numbers and types of travel offered by schools," Rebecca Adams, senior staff attorney for the Connecticut Association of Boards of Educations said Friday of the decision.
Wesley Horton, who represents the Hotchkiss School, could not be reached.
The appeals court has not said how it will proceed.
This article was first published at Hartford Courant.