The Connecticut Supreme Court has ruled that a student who was permanently disabled by a tick bite while on a school trip to China is entitled to $41.7 million in damages. The court stood by the proposition that schools are obligated to warn students and parents about risk exposures for field trips. It also addressed concerns brought about by its decision that the case would lead to a chilling effect on study abroad programs or an increase in similar litigation.
In June and July of 2007, Cara L. Munn, a student at the Hotchkiss School, joined other Hotchkiss students and faculty on a trip to China. In July, she contracted tick-borne encephalitis after being bitten by an infected tick during a hike. As a result, she suffered permanent brain damage. Prior to the trip, school officials gave students information about the trip, including a list of places they would visit and an itinerary, but the list did not indicate that students would be visiting a forested area.Students and parents also received written medical advice for the trip in an email, including a hyperlink to a United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website that incorrectly sent users to a page addressing Central America rather than China. The same document, as well as a pre-departure manual produced by Thompson’s office, indicated Hotchkiss’ infirmary could serve as a travel clinic, although the infirmary was not qualified to provide travel-related medical advice.No one on behalf of Hotchkiss warned students or their parents about the presence of tick-borne encephalitis or the need to protect against it.
Munn subsequently brought a negligence action in federal court to recover damages she sustain after contracting the illness, which initially caused her to become partially paralyzed and semi-comatose before her condition improved. As a result of her illness, however, Munn can not speak, has limited dexterity in her hands, and limited control over her facial muscles. She claimed that the school was negligent in failing to warn students and their parents of the risk of exposure to tick-borne encephalitis and failing to ensure that students took proper preventative measures.
Although public policy in Connecticut does not impose a duty on a school to warn about or protect against the risk of a serious insect-borne disease when organizing a trip abroad, the court in Munn’s case recognized that schools are obligated to exercise reasonable care to protect students in their care from foreseeable harms, and there was no compelling reason to create an exception in this case. It noted that recognizing a school’s general duty to protect its students, including the responsibility to take reasonable measures to warn and protect against serious insect-borne diseases, will serve to promote safety by ensuring unnecessary risks are eliminated or reduced.The court also noted its skepticism that this recognition will lead to a substantial increase in litigation, arguing it would only allow students the opportunity to prove negligence when necessary, and it would not create a new cause of action.
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If your child has been injured as a result of his or her school’s failure to protect against a risk, you may be able to recover through a negligence action. Contact the attorneys at Slappey & Sadd for a free consultation to discuss your case by calling 404.255.6677. We serve the entire state of Georgia, including the following locations: Atlanta, Marietta, and Smyrna.