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State Supreme Court Holds that Private School had Duty to Warn and Protect Students Against Risk of Serious Insect-Borne Disease When Organizing Trip Abroad

On August 11, 2017, the State of Connecticut Supreme Court delivered its decision in Munn v. Hotchkiss School, SC 19525 (Conn. 2017), holding that the state’s public policy does not preclude imposing a duty on a school to warn about or protect students against the risk of a serious insect-borne disease when organizing a trip abroad.  The decision sets an important precedent regarding the extent to which a school may be held liable for injuries sustained by students during school-sponsored programs and activities.  Local and regional boards of education, as well as private schools and other educational institutions, are strongly advised to scrutinize their programs and activities in light of the Munn decision.

The facts of the case date back to the summer of 2007, when the Hotchkiss School, one of the state’s most prestigious private boarding schools, organized an educational trip to China.  The trip itinerary included a tour of a city in the northeastern part of the country, as well as a visit to a nearby forested mountain.  Prior to the trip, school administrators had allegedly visited the Center for Disease Control (CDC) website, which noted the existence of tick-born encephalitis in northeastern China.  While insect repellant was listed among the “miscellaneous items” on the school’s suggested packing list, students were never warned about the existence of the disease in the region, nor were they advised to use insect repellant or wear protective clothing prior to visiting the mountain.

The group of students, teachers, and chaperones hiked up the mountain together, and were supposed to descend together via cable car.  The student and a few classmates, however, were permitted to descend the mountain on foot.  After deviating from the paved pathways, the students became lost, and had to navigate through a heavily forested area before rejoining their group.  The student received several insect bites during the descent, and soon developed symptoms of tick-borne encephalitis.  The disease caused devastating physical and neurological injuries, including brain damage, loss of speech, impaired motor skills, and difficulty eating and swallowing.

The student’s parents filed a negligence action against the school in federal district court, alleging that the school breached its duty to warn and protect student against the risk of contracting the disease.  The jury returned a verdict in favor of the student and awarded her more than $41 million.  The school appealed the case to the Second Circuit, arguing that it did not have a duty to warn or protect students against the disease, and that the jury award was excessive.  The Second Circuit agreed with the student that there was sufficient evidence for the jury to find that her illness was foreseeable, but asked the State of Connecticut Supreme Court to determine whether the state’s public policy imposed such a duty on the school and whether the jury award was excessive.

The Court answered the Second Circuit’s question in the affirmative, applying four factors to determine whether such a duty existed: (1) the normal expectations of the participants in the activity under review; (2) the policy of encouraging participation in the activity, while weighing the safety of the participants; (3) the avoidance of increased litigation; and (4) the decisions of other jurisdictions.  The Court also determined that the jury award was not excessive under the circumstances.

With respect to the first factor, the Court began by recognizing that schools have historically had a duty to exercise reasonable care to protect students from foreseeable harms whenever they act “in the place of a parent” (in loco parentis).  This duty exists when students are in school or are otherwise under the school’s control, such as during transportation, school-sponsored athletic events, off-campus picnics, etc.  The Court determined that this duty extended to school-sponsored educational trips abroad, and opined that student and parents would normally expect schools to take reasonable measures to warn and protect students from diseases that are present in the areas to be visited.  The Court emphasized the difference in information between schools and families when planning for school-sponsored trips, and recognized that schools typically have superior knowledge regarding the areas to be traveled and the associated risks.

With respect to the remaining factors, the Court recognized the importance of promoting international studies and cultural awareness, but disagreed with the school’s contentions that a duty to warn and protect students from diseases during trips abroad would “chill” participation in such trips or result in increased litigation.  The Court noted the scarcity of similar claims against schools, and emphasized that schools only have a duty to exercise reasonable care to protect students from foreseeable harms.  In other words, the duty to warn and protect does not amount to an absolute guarantee of safety.  For a school to be liable for negligence, the risk of unreasonable injury must be foreseeable, constructively or actually known, and preventable if a requisite degree of supervision is exercised.  There must also be actual injury, and the school’s breach of its duty must be the cause of such injury.

In the case at hand, the risk of students contracting tick-borne encephalitis had been foreseeable because school administrators had allegedly viewed the CDC website and learned that the disease existed in the northeastern China.  The school, however, failed to exercise reasonable care by not warning students of the risk, and not advising or requiring them to use insect repellant or other protective measures during the trip.

Importantly, one of the concurring justices disagreed with the majority’s contention that the school’s alleged knowledge of the existence of the disease in northeastern China made the disease a foreseeable risk.  The concurring justice noted that tick-borne encephalitis is an extremely rare disease even in northeastern China, and questioned whether schools should have a duty to warn and protect student against all conceivable risks that attend foreign travel.  Such a duty, it was argued, would be oppressive to schools, would lead to increased litigation, and would ultimately detract from the international educational experience.  It was recommended that injuries sustained from such remote risks be deemed unforeseeable as a matter of law or, alternatively, that schools be generally immune from lawsuits stemming from study abroad and related programs.

Despite this concurring opinion, the Munn decision should serve as a warning to schools that they may be held liable for injuries sustained by students during school-sponsored programs and activities, even if the precipitating danger appears remote or unlikely.  Schools are advised to reevaluate their programs and activities, as well their corresponding policies and procedures, in light of this decision.

The case will now be returned to the Second Circuit, presumably for a final ruling in favor of the student.  The Munn decision will be formally published in the August 22, 2017 edition of the Connecticut Law Journal.  The full texts of the majority and concurring opinions are currently available through the following web link:

Attorneys at Berchem Moses P.C. are available to consult school districts regarding regular and special education matters in the State of Connecticut.  For further information, please contact Attorney Michelle Laubin at .