The National Scene
Health Care Issues, The National Scene - Wednesday, May 1, 2013 15:41 - 0 Comments
A federal court jury in Bridgeport, Conn., last month awarded $41.5 million to a student in a lawsuit against a prestigious Connecticut boarding school. It was alleged in the suit that the Hotchkiss School located in Lakeville, Conn., failed to protect a student from insect-borne viral encephalitis during a 2007 trip to China.
In the Spring of 2007, Cara Munn was ending her freshman year at the college preparatory school. The then 15-year-old signed up for a Hotchkiss-sponsored trip to China in June and July. School officials failed to inform students of the health risks they would face on the trip. While the trip itinerary indicated that the group would be staying in big cities in northeastern China, where there was little risk of insect-borne disease, the teacher in charge had planned a hiking trip to the forests around Mount Panshan. This was a critical omission because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had posted traveler warnings on its website about the risk of tick-borne encephalitis and other dangerous insect-borne diseases in the mountainous regions of northeastern China.
Ten days after the hiking trip to Mount Panshan, the student came down with a raging fever of 104 and an acute headache. She was hospitalized in China after suffering seizures and paralysis. Doctors ultimately diagnosed her with tick-born encephalitis. As a result of the illness, the student suffered permanent neurological damage that has severely limited her motor skills. She is also no longer able to talk, and instead communicates through a computer-assisted typing program.
Two claims based on negligence were submitted to the jury. The first was that The Hotchkiss School failed to inform the students of the risk of insect-borne disease in the places in China where they would be bringing her. The second was that the school failed to ensure that the student took insect-protection precautions, such as using insect repellant, wearing proper clothing, checking herself for ticks and staying out of underbrush. The jury awarded the student $31.5 million in noneconomic damages, $9.8 million in future economic damages and $450,000 for past economic damages.
Two liability experts were used by the plaintiffs’ lawyers. Stuart Rose, a travel medicine specialist from Massachusetts, and Peter Tarlow, a consultant on tourism safety from College Station, Texas, provided expert testimony on the school’s standard of care. The Hotchkiss School’s own expert on travel medicine admitted on cross-examination that the school was on actual notice that there was a risk of tick-borne encephalitis in the region where the student and her Hotchkiss classmates had gone hiking. The trial judge refused to let the school’s standard-of-care expert testify at trial. The Hotchkiss School has said it will appeal the verdict.
Antonio Ponvert III, a lawyer with the Bridgeport firm of Koskoff, Koskoff & Bieder, represented the student in the case and did a very good job. He had this to say about the verdict.
The jury sent the message to schools and any other organizations that take children on overseas trips that they have a duty to bring those children home safely.
The case is Munn v. Hotchkiss School, which was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut.
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