A tiny tick in a mountainous region of China set off a chain of events leading to a $40 million verdict against a Connecticut school – a verdict recently affirmed by the Connecticut Supreme Court.
Although the court’s ruling doesn’t have a direct impact on case law in Florida, state high courts often look to their sister courts in considering rulings that may set precedent. The case was certified to the state supreme court from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, which sought answers as to whether public policy supports imposing a duty on a school to warn about or protect against the risk of a serious insect-borne disease in organizing an abroad trip. The court was also asked whether damages in the amount of $41.5 million warranted a remittitur (reduction). The court answered yes to the first and no to the second.
The court’s ruling underscored that schools do have an affirmative duty to protect children in their care. The ruling doesn’t definitively settle the case, the outcome of which is expected to play a role in how – or whether – schools provide such travel opportunities in the future.
In Florida, public schools are a branch of state government, and as such, they are covered by sovereign immunity. Such immunity can be waived, but damages are still capped at $200,000 per person and $300,000 per tort claim. The only way to secure more – even with a verdict awarding much higher damages – is to successfully obtain a claims bill. Still, it is well set in Florida law that schools have a responsibility to protect students entrusted to their care. Private schools are not subject to the same damage cap. Your Orlando child injury lawyer can help you consider whether you have a viable claim before you decide to file.
The case in Connecticut involves a 15-year-old student who went on a school trip to China at the end of her freshman year of high school at the private school. While hiking in a mountainous region of China, the girl was bitten by a tick. As a result, she developed a condition known as encephalitis. She suffered serious and permanent brain damage and is significantly disabled as a result. She is unable to speak, has lost a great deal of movement control as well as the ability to problem solve. With age, her condition is only expected to worsen.
She and her family members took legal action against the school in a federal injury lawsuit alleging the school district was negligent. The school was ordered to pay $10.5 million in economic damages and $31.5 million in non-economic damages for pain and suffering.
Attorneys for the school argued on appeal there was no duty to warn the student and her parents against a possible tick bite on the trip because it wasn’t something that could be foreseen. However, the federal appeals court disagreed, citing a government travel advisory issued by China.
This case was by no means a slam-dunk, as the court had previously reversed negligence judgments against schools in sports injury-related cases that alleged failure to warn against foreseeable danger, finding it in the interest of public policy to encourage competition in athletics. However, the court ruled schools are generally obligated to use reasonable care to protect students in their care from reasonably foreseeable dangers, there was no compelling argument made to carve out an exception for an insect bite and subsequent disease that was foreseeable.
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Munn v. Hotchkiss School, Aug. 11, 2017, Connecticut Supreme Court
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