On Friday, the Connecticut Supreme Court issued its long-awaited ruling in Munn v. Hotchkiss School, the case involving a private school student who contracted tick-borne encephalitis on a school-sponsored trip to China. In its ruling, the Supreme Court found unanimously that 1) the state’s public policy supports imposing an affirmative duty on schools to warn about and protect against the risk of insect-borne diseases and 2) an award of $41.5 million for the breach of that duty fell within the limits of just compensation.
Cara Munn was a 15-year-old student who participated in a school-sponsored trip to China in 2007. The itinerary for this trip included a visit to Mount Pan, located in a forested region of northeast China. Upon descending the mountain on foot, the student suffered several insect bites, and ten days later, began to experience symptoms of tick-borne encephalitis. Though her condition subsequently stabilized, the student suffered permanent brain damage and has lost the ability to speak and has limited control of her facial muscles. The student and her family sued the school for negligence. Following a 2013 jury trial, a federal district court in Bridgeport found the school negligent for failing to warn the student and her parents about the remote possibility of insect-borne diseases and ordered the school to pay $41.5 million in damages—$31.5 million of which was for non-economic damages such as pain and suffering. The school appealed. In August 2015, the Second Circuit found that the student’s injuries were foreseeable; however, the court requested guidance from the Connecticut Supreme Court on two specific issues: 1) whether state public policy imposed a legal duty on schools “to warn or protect against the foreseeable risk of a serious insect-borne disease when organizing a trip abroad and, if so, 2) whether the jury’s damages award, particularly the noneconomic portion, warranted [vacation of or reduction in the jury’s damages award].”
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