Court Ruling: Schools Responsible for Protecting Students from Rare Diseases During International Travel.

A recent court ruling in the Supreme Court of the state of Connecticut found that academic institutions conducting trips abroad “must warn and protect students from the foreseeable risk of insect-borne diseases.” The 5-0 ruling upheld a $41.5 million verdict against the academic institution.

Connecticut Chief Justice Chase T. Rogers wrote that schools have a general obligation to protect students from foreseeable harms. “We believe that the normal expectations of participants in a school sponsored educational trip abroad, involving minor children, are that the organizer of the trip would take reasonable measures to warn the participants and their parents about the serious insect-borne diseases that are present in the areas to be visited and to protect the children from those diseases.”

The decision comes in a case where 15-year old Clara Munn traveled to northeastern China with The Hotchkiss School, a private boarding school in Lakeville, Connecticut. On the 2007 trip, Munn contracted tick-borne encephalitis (TBE) while hiking down the remote, forested areas of Mt Panshan on a weekend excursion with the school. Munn subsequently suffered brain damage that left her unable to speak, control certain muscles and with emotional trauma.  

The CDC has confirmed that this was the first reported cased of TBE in a U.S. traveler to China—but their site (which was reviewed by a Hotchkiss official) did explain the risks of TBE in forested regions of northeastern China and urged travelers to protect themselves against insect bites.

While participants had signed an Acknowledgement of Risk waiver, it failed to mention the exposure to the tick-borne disease. On this excursion, students were not warned to wear protective clothing.  Additionally, when arriving at Mt. Panshan, a Hotchkiss teacher forgot the insect repellent on the bus, after having applied it to students in previous excursions.

This unfortunate case is a reminder to all academic institutions coordinating international trips that it is critical for consistency across campus and across the world. Every potential risk must be addressed not only in the waiver but in the trip planning and follow-through as well. If these details are not properly planned for and implemented, a waiver will become relatively meaningless in a Duty of Care situation.

Institutions, students and parents must diligently research their destinations and all aspects of the trip to mitigate costly and life-threatening risks. As always, check the CDC website for:

Along with destination-specific information, schools should apply best practices and tips for staying healthy during international travel. All this research should culminate into a comprehensive plan that addresses risk exposures and helps to protect against any “foreseeable harms.”