Munn v. Hotchkiss Sch. – $41.5M Damage Award to be Weighed by a State Supreme Court

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit has certified a number of important questions regarding a $41.5 million negligence case wherein unresolved issues state law and public policy could have a significant impact on future negligence cases in that state.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Our Florida child injury lawyers know that while the state supreme court’s decision may not have a direct bearing on cases in Florida, where similar unresolved issues arise in other states, such determinations are often looked to for guidance.

This case, Munn v. Hotchkiss Sch., was weighed most recently on an appeal from the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut. The specific questions forwarded to the state supreme court are:

  • Does the state public policy support imposing a duty on a school to protect against or warn about the risk of a serious, insect-related disease when organizing student trips abroad?
  • If it does, is the award amount, which exceeds $40 million and includes $31.5 million in non-economic damages, require a remittur (reduction)?

According to court records, student in this case was a 15-year-old high school freshman at a private boarding school. In the summer, the school organized a month-long immersion program in China that included language courses and weekend trips to important local landmarks. The school’s Chinese language and culture director was the trip leader, and she submitted to parents legal forms waiving any claims against the school.

Those forms included an indication the trip would include a visit to a certain mountain region. Medical advice was also sent for the trip, which included a link to the website for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as a notation that the school infirmary would serve as a travel clinic. The CDC link was actually incorrect – it linked to a notice for those traveling to Central America, not China. Further, the infirmary didn’t provide any independent medical advice. A notation in the “miscellaneous” section of the forms indicated the need to bring bug spray.

While on the trip, the students went for a weekend to the Great Wall and then later to a forested mountain region. At no time were students warned to wear bug spray. In fact, the trip leader left her bug spray on the bus. Several students decided to take a path down from the top of the mountain, while others took cable cars. The group got lost navigating thick brush and trees.

They eventually found their way back, but all were covered with insect bites, and the itch persisted.

Ten days later, while still on the trip, the teen awoke with a fever. She was lightheaded, dizzy and had a headache. She rapidly got worse and was rushed to a local hospital, and was later transferred to Beijing. Her parents flew there from the U.S. to be by her side. She was very sick and partially paralyzed. She was later flown back to New York, where she was diagnosed with a tick-borne disease known as encephalitis. It’s a viral infection attacking the central nervous system.

She lost her ability to speak. She must now use a typing machine to communicate. She can’t control facial muscles and continuously drools. She has also lost some cognitive function, particularly in terms of math and reading, though she did manage to graduate high school and attend a local college. But some of her injuries will be permanent.

Her parents filed a personal injury lawsuit against the high school, alleging negligent planning and careless supervision. Specifically, parents alleged negligent failure to warn about the risks of this disease, failing to provide proper protective clothing, vaccinations or insect repellent, failing to have medical personnel on the trip, failing to address emergency medical procedures for the trip and failing to notify the parents of a vaccine that protects against this disease for those traveling to rural China.

The school asserted the waiver of liability was an affirmative defense, but the district court excluded the waiver as ambiguous and against public policy.

Jurors sided with plaintiff and awarded $41.5 million in damages for which the school was solely liable. The jury found no contributory negligence on the part of student.

On appeal, the school argues it had no legal duty to warn against this disease and that the damage award is excessive.

The answer to whether there is merit in those claims now rests with the state high court.

If you have been injured in an accident, contact the Hollander Law Firm at 888-751-7777 for a free and confidential consultation. There is no fee unless we win.

Additional Resources:

Munn v. Hotchkiss Sch., Aug. 3, 2015, U.S. Court of Appeals for Second District

More Blog Entries:

Florida Boating Accident Critically Injures Teen, July 14, 2015, West Palm Child Injury Attorney Blog