Connecticut Court Concludes that School is Responsible for Tick-Bite Illness that Student Acquired on Field Trip

ForestAfter a federal jury returned a $41.7 million verdict against a private Connecticut school, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that the school had a duty to warn parents about potential harms their children might suffer on field trips. The particular harm at issue was a tick bite that caused a student to develop a disabling disease on a trip to China.

Facts of the Case

Cara Munn was a student at the Hotchkiss School, a private boarding school in Lakeville, Connecticut. When she was 15, Cara joined other students and faculty on an educational field trip to China.

During the trip, Cara was bitten by a tick while hiking in a forested area. She contracted tick-borne encephalitis, an infectious disease that affects the central nervous system. The disease caused permanent brain damage.

Cara sued the school in federal court, alleging that the school was negligent in failing to warn students and their parents about the risk of exposure to insect-borne diseases and in failing to take steps that would protect students from that risk. A federal jury returned a verdict of $10.25 million in economic damages and $31.5 million in noneconomic damages. The verdict was reduced slightly to account for payments that Cara had already received.

The school challenged the verdict on appeal. It argued that the school was not liable for negligence because the possibility of contracting a serious disease from an insect bite was unforeseeable. The federal court of appeals disagreed after concluding that evidence at trial established the foreseeability of that risk.

The school also contended that holding the school accountable for the disease would be contrary to public policy. That issue hinged on state law concerning the public policy limits of negligence lawsuits. Noting that Connecticut precedent did not clearly answer the question, the court of appeals asked the Connecticut Supreme Court to decide whether public policy shields schools from liability for failing to warn parents and students about the risk of insect-borne diseases on foreign field trips.

Duty to Protect Children

The Connecticut Supreme Court applied the “widely recognized” rule that schools have an obligation to exercise reasonable care to protect their students from foreseeable dangers. A duty to avoid causing harm to another person arises when a harm of the general nature suffered could reasonably have been anticipated by an ordinary person and when it is possible to avoid the harm by exercising reasonable care.

The Connecticut Supreme Court agreed with the jury’s finding and the federal court’s conclusion that the exposure to insect-borne diseases was a foreseeable risk of the trip. School faculty knew, but did not advise the students or their parents, that the students would be hiking in a forested area. Faculty sent an email to the students’ parents that purported to provide information about diseases the children might encounter, but the email mistakenly linked to a page on the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) website that addressed diseases in South America, not China.

The same email advised parents that the school’s infirmary would serve as a travel clinic, although the infirmary was not qualified to provide travel-related medical advice. Students were also given a list of items to bring, including “bug spray,” but “bug spray” appeared under the heading of “miscellaneous items” that appeared to be optional.

The CDC page that addresses illnesses in China warns that tick-borne encephalitis occurs in forested areas in northeast China, where the students would be hiking. The director of the school’s international program visited that page and was aware that CDC recommended using an insect repellent containing DEET and wearing pants and a long-sleeve shirt while traveling in that area. The director did not pass along those recommendations to the students or their parents. Clara and the other students took the hike wearing shorts and t-shirts or tank tops.

Since the harm that Clara suffered was foreseeable by the faculty members who planned and supervised the trip, the general rule of liability would suggest that they had a duty to exercise reasonable care to protect students from that harm. They could have done so by instructing the children to use an appropriate insect repellent and to wear appropriate clothing.

Public Policy

Connecticut law only recognizes a duty to exercise reasonable care, however, when the duty is consistent with public policy. The court noted that many harms are foreseeable, but the law does not impose a duty to protect other people from harm in every instance. Some harms, while foreseeable, are so attenuated from the conduct causing the harm that it would be unreasonable to hold people responsible for those consequences of their behavior. The court rejected the argument that the risk of contracting an insect-borne virus was too remote to justify imposing liability upon the school.

The court also noted that the law of negligence does not always impose a duty upon one person to take an affirmative step to protect another person from harm. The duty imposed by negligence law is usually a duty not to act carelessly rather than a duty to take some protective action. For example, it might be foreseeable to Sally that Joe will be injured if he drives drunk, but unless Sally did something that contributed to Joe’s intoxication, she has no affirmative duty to protect him from the consequences of his own drinking.

As a matter of public policy, however, courts often make an exception to that rule when there is a special relationship between the parties. Among other circumstances (such as the relationship between a landowner and a person invited to use the owner’s property), a special relationship usually exists when one person has custody of another. Parents have a duty to take affirmative steps to protect their children; jailers have a duty to take affirmative steps to protect their inmates.

The relationship between a school and its pupils has long been regarded as a special relationship that imposes a duty upon schools to take affirmative action to protect students from foreseeable harms while the students are in the care of the school. Since parents relinquish control of their ability to protect their children while their children are in school, requiring the school to assume that duty assures that children remain protected.

Following the general rule that schools have an affirmative duty to protect children from foreseeable harm, the court found nothing in the risk of contracting an insect-borne disease on a school field trip that justified a departure from that rule. The court rejected the argument that imposing liability would discourage schools from offering field trips or that it would cause an explosion of litigation. The specific harm at issue does not occur often, and the court concluded that imposing liability would probably cause schools to issue appropriate warnings in the future rather than cancelling field trips.

Impact of the Decision

As a result of the Connecticut Supreme Court’s decision, the federal verdict is likely to be affirmed. Clara’s attorney hailed the decision as reaffirming the duty of schools to protect the children who are in their care. The decision undoubtedly sends a message to schools in Connecticut and other states that assuring the safety of students should be a top priority.

How schools will react to that message is unclear. An attorney for the Connecticut Association of Boards of Educations warned that the decision “will have a deeply chilling effect on the numbers and types of travel offered by schools.” The court noted, however, that even after the verdict, Hotchkiss School has continued its foreign travel program. Schools may conclude that the educational benefit of offering field trips outweighs the relatively small risk of being sued, particularly if faculty are encouraged to anticipate and address potential harms that may arise during field trips.

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