Connecticut Supreme Court’s Decision Reinforces the Duty of Care for School and Student Travel
On Friday, the Connecticut Supreme Court issued its much anticipated decision in Munn v. Hotchkiss School. In a unanimous decision, the Court, noting the well-recognized duty imposed on schools to exercise reasonable care in protecting students in their charge from foreseeable harms, found that the state’s public policy supports imposing a duty on a school to warn about or protect against the risk of insect-borne diseases while traveling abroad. The Court also declined to reduce the $41.5 million jury award.
In 2007, 15-year-old Cara Munn participated in her school’s summer program in Tianjin, China, and contracted tick-born encephalitis (TBE) after hiking down Mount Panshan. While the Hotchkiss School informed Munn’s parents of the trip itinerary, medical advice, packing list and other materials, the school did not provide any warnings about insect-borne diseases although the CDC website for China had such a warning. Although the school sent a link to the CDC website, it sent the link to the wrong country. As a result of her illness, Munn sustained brain damage and lost the ability to speak.
In 2009, Munn’s parents sued the school for negligence in federal court, alleging that the school failed to adequately warn Munn of the risks of insect-borne illnesses in China and failed to take protective measures. In 2013, the jury found in favor of plaintiffs and awarded $41.5 million in damages. The school appealed to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing that it did not have a duty to warn about rare diseases or to prevent rare diseases like TBE, and that the damages award was excessive. While the federal appellate court agreed with plaintiffs there was sufficient evidence to find Cara Munn’s injuries were foreseeable, it was unable to determine whether public policy imposed a duty to warn on Hotchkiss or whether the verdict was excessive. Thus, it sent two questions to the Connecticut Supreme Court for decision.
The Connecticut Supreme Court: The Issues and the Decision
The two questions before the Connecticut Supreme Court were whether Connecticut public policy supports imposing a duty on a school to warn about or protect against the risk of a serious, insect-borne disease when it organizes a trip abroad, and whether the award of $41.5 million should be reduced.
The Court determined that Connecticut public policy supports imposing a duty on a school to warn about or protect against a risk of an insect-borne disease. In reaching this decision, the Court focused on the widely recognized special relationship between schools and their minor students, and the school’s duty to protect its students from foreseeable harms while they are in its custody and control as the school effectively takes the place of parents and guardians. “Parents who have relinquished control and custody of their children to the school rightly expect that the school will exercise reasonable care as long as their children remain under the school’s custody and control.” The Court, however, stressed that the duty to warn and protect does not guarantee absolute safety, nor does it require schools to undertake every possible precautionary measure, “[r]ather, the scope of the duty necessarily will vary, depending on the risk posed by the particular insect-borne illness at issue, the ages of the participants in the school-sponsored trip, and all of the attendant circumstances.” The Court also focused on readily available information on the CDC website and the many available protective measures against insect-borne diseases of which the school was aware.
While the Court recognized the many benefits of educational travel and the importance of promoting it, it disagreed that recognizing that the duty to protect including reasonable efforts to warn about and protect against insect-borne diseases would have a chilling effect as urged by the school and various amici. The Court also expressed skepticism at the claim that its ruling would result in increased litigation, noting the lack of similar claims, readily available information and the fact that not every negligence claim results in liability.
In considering the amount of the award, the Court declined to reduce it. Given the scope of Ms. Munn’s injuries, her inability to communicate with the people and world around her, and her life expectancy and long-term care needs, among other factors, the Court found the damages fell within the “acceptable range of just compensation.”
The case will now head back to the appellate court to render its decision on appeal, given the guidance from the Connecticut Supreme Court.
The Potential Impact
Overall, this decision puts schools and youth organizations, in particular, as well as student travel planners, on notice to be more diligent and mindful about taking reasonable steps to protect students from foreseeable harms and avoid catastrophic injuries like those suffered by Munn. Schools, youth organizations and planners need to avail themselves of readily available information on websites such as the CDC and State Department, and advise students and parents accordingly. It remains to be seen whether this decision will affect student travel and/or increase litigation. The Court looked at these issues as raised by many of the amici and surmised otherwise. With increased attention to protecting students from foreseeable harms, litigation may actually decrease.