$41.5 Million Tick Bite Goes to Top Court

     NEW YORK (CN) – The Connecticut Supreme Court will have to decide whether the Hotchkiss School has to pay $41.5 million to a student who suffered debilitating nerve damage from tick-borne encephalitis on a school trip to China.
     Earlier this week, the Second Circuit certified two questions for the Connecticut high court, saying the state’s public policy is unclear about the Hotchkiss School’s legal duty in this case and it couldn’t determine whether the $41.5 million award was excessive without guidance.
     Cara Munn was left without the ability to speak when she was 15, from nerve damage caused by tick-borne encephalitis. She contracted the disease while on a day trip to Mt. Pan as part of a month-long summer trip to China through the Hotchkiss School.
     On the day of the mountain visit, Munn and two or three other students were allowed to hike back down the mountain while the other students and their teacher rode a cable car. While hiking down, Munn and her classmates ventured off the main trail, walked through thick brush and received numerous insect bites and welts.
     Shortly after, Munn fell ill and eventually had to be flown back to New York to receive medical treatment.
     Munn and her parents took the school to court and were awarded $41.5 million, prompting the school’s appeal.
     Although Connecticut public policy includes strict standards for determining negligence in cases with children but allows for exceptions when the benefits of the activity potentially outweigh the danger to the participants, such as sporting events where children risk injury but benefit from athletic and competitive interaction.
     “Field trips are intended to expose children to situations outside of their comfort zones and of the organizers’ control,” Circuit Judge John Walker Jr. wrote for the three-judge panel. “Such trips thus naturally entail a certain level of risk.”
     Of the $41.5 million, $31.5 million was for non-economic damages, and Munn’s attorney offered few specifics to justify the size of the award. The appellate court cited a few other examples of Connecticut cases where much smaller non-economic awards were thrown out as unjustified, including a $320,000 for loss of consortium when a woman’s husband died from illnesses related to asbestos exposure.
     In that case, the court ruled that “evidence was sparse” on how much of a consortium loss there was.
     Although Connecticut courts have upheld other large non-economic awards, the appellate court was concerned that the $41.5 million award could undermine the general practice of school-sponsored field trips.
     “The enormous award magnifies the effects of the lawsuit on organizations offering educational trips. The $41.5 million in damages might have a chilling effect on educational trips,” Walker wrote.

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