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School Found Liable for Field Trip Tick Bite That Paralyzed Student

'The normal expectations of the participants in a school sponsored educational trip abroad involving minor children supported the imposition of a duty on the defendant to warn about and to protect against serious insect-borne diseases in the areas to be visited on the trip.'

Most of that is pretty standard stuff: we want schools to adequately warn students and parents about the dangers they might encounter on a field trip. It's the "serious insect-borne diseases" part that gives one pause. And it should -- that disease was tick-borne encephalitis, or TBE, contracted by a 15-year-old boarding school student in northeast China. And the full quote was from Connecticut Supreme Court Chief Justice Chase T. Rogers, upholding a $41.7 million verdict against the school for failing to inform her that the U.S. Center for Disease Control had issued a warning to protect against the disease in the exact area where the students would travel.

School Symptoms

Cara Munn contracted TBE when she and other students got lost in the woods descending Mount Panjan while on a trip arranged by the Hotchkiss School in Connecticut, and her injuries are devastating:

The plaintiff received insect bites and, ten days later, began to experience the first symptoms of tick-borne encephalitis. She subsequently became partially paralyzed and semicomatose, but, thereafter, her condition stabilized and improved. As a result of her illness, the plaintiff cannot speak, has limited dexterity in her hands that prevents her from typing, and has limited control over her facial muscles causing her to drool, to have difficulty eating and swallowing, and to exhibit socially inappropriate facial expressions. Furthermore, although the plaintiff remains intelligent, she has compromised brain functioning that inhibits her ability to utilize that intelligence.

A jury awarded Munn $41.75 million in damages, and the school appealed the decision to the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals, which in turn asked the Connecticut Supreme Court whether state public policy supported imposing a duty on a school to warn about such risks and whether the damages were warranted in this case.

School Liability

Chief Justice Rogers answered both of those in the affirmative. "The recognition that a school's general duty to protect its students includes the responsibility to take reasonable measures to warn about and to protect against serious insect-borne diseases," she wrote, "will not have a chilling effect on educational travel but will promote safety by ensuring that unnecessary risks are eliminated or reduced by appropriate warnings and protective measures." Therefore, schools can be held accountable for not warning students about and protecting students from foreseeable risks.

"Although one can certainly conceive of physical injuries more extreme than those suffered by the plaintiff," Rogers added, upholding the damages amount, "it is the destruction of the plaintiff's ability to connect with other people, along with her full awareness of the situation, that makes her suffering stand out."

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