The Connecticut Supreme Court recently determined as a matter of law that independent schools have a duty of care to warn students against the risks of insect-borne illnesses when organizing study abroad trips. Failure to provide adequate warnings and safety advice to students may expose institutions to substantial liability.
In Munn v. The Hotchkiss School, the court upheld a $41.75 million judgment against a prestigious preparatory institution, The Hotchkiss School, after a student contracted tick-borne encephalitis while hiking in a mountainous region outside of Beijing, China during a school-sponsored study abroad program. Prior to the trip, the school provided parents with a hyperlink to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website and suggested items to pack, including bug spray, but the jury found, and the court upheld, that the school failed to take sufficient measures to notify students and parents of known health risks for traveling in the particular region of China.
The Munn court examined several public policy factors to arrive at this conclusion, such as the normal expectations of the students and parents, the benefit of study abroad activity, and the ease of preventing injuries. After reviewing these factors, the Munn court determined that schools with custody of minor children have an obligation to use reasonable care to protect children from foreseeable harms during school-sponsored activities.
While the court failed to provide “black letter” guidance on foreseeability, the court noted several considerations that factored into its decision. In the court’s view, the school should have foreseen the potential harm and had an attendant duty to warn because the CDC website clearly explained the dangers of tick-borne encephalitis. The nature of the injury was serious, while, in the court’s view, the cost of warning students was slight. And the school had a special relationship with its students as both custodian and organizer of the trip. As a result of these factors, the court held that students and parents had a justifiable expectation that the school would have taken more stringent safeguards.
Munn is a harsh illustration of the shifting nature of “duty” under the law and a prime example of the difficulty of assessing the breadth of legal duties both independent schools and colleges owe to their students. It is also an excellent reminder of the importance of keeping policies and procedures around study abroad, and student programs generally, up to date and current with the evolving law on these issues.