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Court Upholds $41 Million Verdict In Tick Bite Case

A federal appeals court has upheld a $41.7 million jury verdict for a Connecticut private school student who was severely and permanently disabled after developing encephalitis from a tick bite while on a class trip to China.

The case, which has been litigated for nine years, established that schools in Connecticut are obligated to protect children in their care, a conclusion that insurers, schools and other groups have warned could reduce educational travel opportunities for students.

The suit was brought in federal court in Bridgeport in 2009 by the parents of Cara Munn of New York, who at age 15 and at the conclusion of her freshman year at the private Hotchkiss School in Salisbury, was bitten by a tick and developed encephalitis while hiking in a remote, mountainous area of China during a school study program.

“She is gratified that the justice system worked,” her lawyer, Antonio Ponvert said Friday. “She is also happy and proud that her case might encourage custodians of minor children to be more careful.”

As a result of the insect bite, Munn suffered permanent brain damage and became seriously disabled. She has lost control over some movement, has lost problem-solving ability and is unable to speak. Her condition is expected to worsen with age.

She and her family sued the school for negligence and her jury returned the staggering verdict in 2013, ordering the school to pay her and her family $10.25 million in economic damages and $31.5 million for pain and suffering.

Lawyers for Hotchkiss argued that the school had no duty to warn Munn and her parents against contracting tick-borne encephalitis on 2007 trip because such an event could not have been foreseen.

The U.S. Court of appeals for the Second Circuit, which took the appeal, sent the case the the state Supreme Court for the resolution of two, central questions: Are Connecticut schools obligated by state policy and law to warn of the danger of contracting an insect-borne illness on field trips? And was a $41.7 million verdict excessive?

The state’s high court said last summer there is an “affirmative duty” to warn and upheld the verdict.

The case returned to the second circuit, where a panel of three judges published an unsigned summary order Tuesday dismissing the school’s remaining appellate claims and affirming the verdict.

The Hotchkiss lawyers were not immediately available Friday. If the school chooses to press its appeal further, it could ask the entire second circuit bench to hear the case or petition the U.S. Supreme Court.

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