Court Upholds $41M Award for Student Paralyzed by Tick Bite

(CN) – A Connecticut woman who was paralyzed by a tick bite in China is entitled to a $41.7 million damages award from the school that organized her field trip, the state’s highest court ruled Tuesday.

Cara Munn was 15 years old when she contracted tick-borne encephalitis, or TBE, in 2009 on a trip set up by the Hotchkiss School, a private boarding school in Lakeville, Conn.

She claimed that Hotchkiss’s director of international programs failed to inform her that the U.S. Center for Disease Control had issued a warning to protect against the disease in the forested area of northeastern China, where the students would travel.

Munn and other students, wearing shorts and T-shirts or tank tops, got lost in the woods when they descended Mount Panjan, and Munn was bitten by insects.

Their teachers and chaperones were not with them, as they took a cable car down the mountain.

Ten days later, Munn became partially paralyzed and semi-comatose. Those symptoms improved, but she cannot speak or type, according to court records.

Munn also cannot control her facial muscles, causing her to drool and make socially inappropriate expressions. Her brain function is compromised, so she cannot fully use her intelligence.

The trial court noted that Munn “always looks like she is flashing a wide-eyed smile, and she sometimes wears wrist bands to mop her saliva…her facial expressions alternately alienate or disgust the people she attempts to befriend.”

Munn’s “heart broke when a boy that she dated prior to her trip to China dumped her and posted cutting remarks about her on Facebook,” court records state. “She rages when people assume that she suffers from severe mental retardation, and she cannot correct that impression.”

Still, she managed to finish high school and was enrolled in college at the time of the trial.

She sued the school in federal court for negligence and won an award of $41.75 million.

The school appealed, but the Second Circuit agreed with Munn that the injury was foreseeable.

The New York-based appeals court posed a certified question to the Connecticut Supreme Court in 2015, asking if a school has a duty under state law to warn students of serious insect-borne diseases on field trips.

The state’s high court answered yes in a ruling released Tuesday, which was written by Chief Justice Chase T. Rogers.

“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,” she wrote.

Rogers added, “Furthermore, 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 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.”

The Connecticut Supreme Court also refuted the school’s argument that the chances of Munn’s injury were remote.

“The rarity of tick-borne encephalitis was not relevant to this court’s public policy analysis and should be weighed by the fact finder when determining foreseeability,” the ruling states.

Rogers also upheld the size of Munn’s award.

“She had completely lost the ability to have meaningful communication and interaction with people, and, given her long life expectancy and the fact that the physical effects of her injuries will worsen as she ages, her psychological condition will deteriorate over time,” Rogers wrote.

“Although one can certainly conceive of physical injuries more extreme than those suffered by the plaintiff, 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,” she added.

Justice Andrew J. McDonald wrote a concurring opinion regarding the damage award.

“While the damages award in the present case shocks my conscience, our existing standard does not provide a recognized basis to conclude that the trial court’s conclusion to the contrary was improper,” he wrote. “Because the parties have not challenged the existing standards, I write in the hope that this issue will be remedied—either legislatively or by this court— at the earliest appropriate opportunity.” (Emphasis in original.)

Senior Justice Carmen E. Espinosa also wrote a concurring opinion, noting that Munn was the first U.S. visitor to contract TBE in China.

“Other schools and programs will not have the luxury of ignoring equally remote risks, in the hope that other juries might be less generous or that other courts might draw firmer limits on foreseeability. Providers will have to conduct their affairs, plan their itineraries, and insure themselves as if they are strictly liable for any and all remote risks that might come to pass,” she wrote. “Students will be the worse for it. We conduct our affairs in the shadow of the law, and this case casts a long shadow indeed.”

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