Connecticut Hotchkiss School ()
In a closely watched liability case, the state Supreme Court sided with a federal jury’s $41.8 million penalty against the Hotchkiss School after a student was infected by a bug bite during a class trip.
The Salisbury school failed to adequately warn students on a 2007 school-sponsored trip to China about the risk of insect-borne diseases. The plaintiff, Cara Munn, then 14, contracted tick‐borne encephalitis on the trip, which left her disabled and unable to speak. After a trial in 2013, the jury found the school liable.
The school appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, arguing it did not have the legal duty to either warn students or protect them from contracting diseases in such a way.
The appellate panel ordered Connecticut’s high court to certify two questions: Did the school have a duty to warn about serious insect-borne illness under state’s public policy, and was the damages award excessive?
In one of three concurring opinions, Chief Justice Chase Rogers said “there was no compelling reason to create an exception in this case” for the generally understood obligation schools have to protect students.
The state Supreme Court panel dismissed Hotchkiss’ concerns that the decision would have a chilling effect on the ability of schools and similar institutions to travel with youth.
“[W]e are skeptical that recognition of a school’s duty to warn about, or protect against, a serious insect-borne illness when organizing an educational trip abroad will lead to a flood of similar actions,” the court wrote. “Our research has disclosed a dearth of claims with fact patterns similar to the present case, perhaps because the incidence of students contracting serious insect-borne diseases while on educational trips abroad, when appropriate protective measures are taken, is relatively uncommon.”
While Rogers, writing for the court, found the “clearly generous” award fell “within the acceptable range of just compensation,” Justice Andrew McDonald, in a concurring opinion, found the state’s “current remittitur jurisprudence … internally inconsistent” in providing “clear guidance as to what constitutes an excessive verdict.” He called on either the Legislature or the state Supreme Court to remedy the situation.
“Our muddled precedents are particularly problematic when noneconomic damages are challenged,” he wrote. “Indeed, 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.”
Despite the reservations, Koskoff Koskoff & Bieder’s Antonio Ponvert III called the court’s decision a decisive win for his client.
“I don’t think it would be possible for them to answer the certified questions in a more resounding, clear and powerful way,” he said.
The decision now returns the case to the federal appellate level, where the panel will decide how to proceed with the remaining arguments brought by the defendants.
In the final concurring opinion, Senior Justice Carmen Espinosa wrote she hopes the appellate court revisits the determination there was sufficient evidence to support the jury’s finding that Munn’s injuries were foreseeable.
“[A]s parents, we would love to be able to put our children into all sorts of challenging, character building situations, yet have them always walk away successful and unscathed. But life is not a Disney movie, and that is not a realistic expectation,” Espinosa wrote. “As both this court and others frequently have observed, it would be unwise, if not impossible, to impose such a duty on schools and related entities.”
Attorneys for Horton, Shields & Knox, which represented Hotchkiss, could not be reached for comment on the decision.