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Law School Case Brief

Munn v. Hotchkiss Sch. - 326 Conn. 540, 165 A.3d 1167 (2017)

Rule:

Proper compensation cannot be computed by a mathematical formula, and there is no iron-clad rule for the assessment of damages. In determining whether to order remittitur, the trial court is required to review the evidence in the light most favorable to sustaining the verdict. Upon completing that review, the court should not interfere with the jury's determination except when the verdict is plainly excessive or exorbitant. The ultimate test which must be applied to the verdict by the trial court is whether the jury's award falls somewhere within the necessarily uncertain limits of just damages or whether the size of the verdict so shocks the sense of justice as to compel the conclusion that the jury was influenced by partiality, prejudice, mistake or corruption. The court's broad power to order a remittitur should be exercised only when it is manifest that the jury has included items of damage which are contrary to law, not supported by proof, or contrary to the court's explicit and unchallenged instructions. 

Facts:

Plaintiff C.M., a minor student at defendant The Hotchkiss School ("School"), filed a negligence action in federal district court to recover damages resulting from injuries she sustained after she had contracted tick-borne encephalitis on an educational trip to China organized by the School. Prior to the trip, one of the School's employees, who served as the director of the School's international programs and who provided the students who were traveling to China with information about the trip, viewed on the website for the United States Center for Disease Control and Prevention information concerning travel to China. That information included a warning that tick-borne encephalitis occurred in the forested region of China where the students would be traveling and an instruction to travelers that the disease could be prevented by taking certain precautions to protect against insect bites. C.M claimed that the School had been negligent by failing to warn students going on the trip and their parents of the risk of exposure to tick-borne encephalitis, and by failing to ensure that the students took protective measures against insect bites to prevent contracting that disease. During the trip, the students visited a certain mountain in an area of China where the website had reported that tick-borne encephalitis was present, and the School did not warn the students to take precautions to protect against insect bites. After the group of students ascended the mountain, C.M. and a small group of other students became lost in the woods when they were allowed to descend the mountain by themselves. C.M. received insect bites and, ten days later, began to experience the first symptoms of tick-borne encephalitis. She subsequently became partially paralyzed and semicomatose, but, thereafter, her condition stabilized and improved. As a result of her illness, C.M could not speak, had limited dexterity in her hands that prevented her from typing, and had limited control over her facial muscles causing her to drool, to have difficulty eating and swallowing, and to exhibit socially inappropriate facial expressions. Furthermore, although C.M. remained intelligent, her brain functions became compromised, inhibiting her ability to utilize that intelligence. After a trial, the jury awarded C.M. $41.75 million in damages, of which $31.5 million constituted noneconomic damages; and district court rendered judgment on the verdict. The School appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, which concluded that there was sufficient evidence presented at trial for the jury to find that C.M.'s illness was foreseeable. The appellate court then certified questions to the Supreme Court of  Connecticut as to whether Connecticut public policy supported imposing a duty on a school to warn about or to protect against the foreseeable risk of a serious insect-borne disease when it organized a trip abroad and whether the noneconomic portion of C.M.'s damages award warranted a remittitur.

Issue:

Did the public policy of the State of Connecticut impose a duty on a school to warn or protect their students against foreseeable risks of a serious insect-borne disease when it organized a trip abroad?

Answer:

Yes.

Conclusion:

The state supreme court held that Connecticut public policy supported imposing a duty on the school to warn about or protect against the risk of a serious insect-borne disease when it organized a trip abroad because schools generally were obligated to exercise reasonable care to protect students in their charge from foreseeable dangers, and there was no compelling reason to create an exception for foreseeable serious insect-borne diseases. Moreover, the court held that C.M.'s damage award did not warrant a remittitur because the award fell within the acceptable range of just compensation; the trial court carefully reviewed the verdict, C.M. was very young and retained a long life expectancy in spite of her severely disabled condition.

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