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Connecticut Supreme Court’s Decision Could Impact the Duty of Care for School and Student Travel

Attorney: Laurie E. Sherwood | Published 4.6.17

The Connecticut Supreme Court recently heard oral arguments in Munn v. Hotchkiss School, and is expected to make a decision soon on issues that could have a profound impact on the travel industry, especially student travel and study abroad programs.

In this case, the lower court upheld a $41.5 million jury award to the parents of a New York student who contracted a rare disease, tick-born encephalitis (TBE), while on a school trip in China. In 2007, 15-year-old Carla Munn participated in her school’s summer program in Tianjin, China, and contracted TBE after hiking down from 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. As a result of her illness, Munn sustained brain damage and lost the ability to speak.

Munn’s parents sued the school for negligence alleging that the school failed to adequately warn Munn of the risks of insect-borne illnesses in China and failed to take protective measures. The school appealed the jury’s award of $41.5 million in damages, arguing that it does not have a duty to warn about rare diseases or to prevent rare diseases like TBE, and that the damages award was excessive.

The Argument
The Connecticut Supreme Court will now determine 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 if so, whether the award of $41.5 million should be reduced.

The Potential Impact
Should the Connecticut Supreme Court rule that the award stands, and state legislatures and courts do not act to narrow the duty imposed by their own state laws, we may see an increase in travel-related litigation around the country. Depending on the ruling, this matter could set a precedent for negligence cases arising out of school field trips and study abroad programs. Travel organizers and planners could be burdened with the expectation that it must warn students and protect them against every possible danger. We may see a rise in litigation not only in negligence matters involving school trips, but negligence matters involving children’s activities in general. Irrespective of how the Supreme Court rules on this matter, this case puts schools and student travel organizers on notice and encourages them to become more diligent and mindful about taking steps to protect students from foreseeable harms and avoiding catastrophic injuries like that suffered by Munn.