School Liability for Injuries on Field Trips

Often, one of the best parts of an educational experience comes from putting the books and lectures aside while getting out into the real world to see and experience things. Unfortunately, such trips sometimes come with various risks of injury, and the Courts are, at times, called on to address resultant claims.

Recently, the Connecticut Supreme Court, in Munn v. The Hotchkiss School, 326 Conn. 540 (2017), was called upon to decide whether Connecticut public policy mandated an exception to the general rule that schools must refrain from negligently exposing their students to foreseeable dangers. The Court answered this question with a definitive no, and held that Connecticut public policy does not preclude imposing a duty on the school to warn about or to protect against the risk of serious insect-borne disease when taking a school trip.

The issue arose in connection with a school trip to China that led to a 15-year-old student contracting a very rare tick-borne encephalitis that resulted in horrific neurological injuries. In connection with a trip to Mt. Panshan, where the tick bite occurred, the Plaintiff argued that students were not warned to wear clothing that would protect against bites or to apply insect repellant. A Federal Court jury agreed the school was at fault, that the risks encountered were foreseeable to the school, and that economic damages in the amount of $10.25 Million and $31.5 Million in noneconomic damages were warranted. The U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment insofar as it agreed that the Plaintiff had presented sufficient evidence at trial for the jury to find that her illness was foreseeable.  This last point is quite important: it is for the fully-informed jury – at trial – to answer the foreseeability question that is central to all negligence cases.

The Munn decision is important for a number or reasons. First, it demonstrates an appropriate regard by a state’s highest court for the proper role of a jury’s fact-finding function that in many states is a right of a Constitutional magnitude. Indeed, the Restatement (Third) of Torts explains, as the Munn Court noted, that “to the extent that foreseeable risk depends on the specific facts of the case, courts should leave such determinations to the jury unless no reasonable person could differ on the matter.” Second, it notes that a school’s duty of care is a function of a school’s special relationship with its students, as recognized by numerous cases, in every school setting, in relation to a myriad of risks, and as explicitly recognized by the Restatement (Third) of Torts § 40. This has been described as the “distinctive relationship between colleges and their students[,]” by other Courts, such as the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in Mullins v. Pine Manor College, 389 Mass. 47 (1983). Under a special relationship analysis, the degree of care required will vary depending on the particular risk at issue and all of the attendant circumstances. Thus, as properly recognized by the Munn Court, such fact-intensive considerations cannot – and should not – be taken from the jury. After all, as the Connecticut Supreme Court explicitly explained, a recognition of a duty of care only means that the Plaintiff gets to try their case to a jury.  There, the jury gets to actually hear the evidence in context and make credibility determinations in connection with its analysis of fault, causation, comparative fault, if any, and damages. All of these fact-laden elements of a case can present substantial hurdles to recovery.

All such cases must be considered on a case-by-case basis, both by counsel, and the Courts.

The lawyers at HBMHLaw have extensive experience in cases involving injuries in a school setting.  If a loved one has been hurt due to the negligence of someone else, please call for a free consultation.