A Secondary school in the USA has been held liable for an award of $41.75 million to the family of a 15 year old girl who contracted an insect-borne disease while on an overseas trip.
15 year old Cara Munn left for a school trip to China as a smart, happy teenager with a promising future. She came back on a stretcher in a semi-comatose state unable to talk after contracting an insect-borne disease.
Her lawyers proved to a jury in the USA that her school should have warned students to protect against insect bites and monitor them carefully while they were trekking through known infested areas.
The school offered a six week educational trip to China. Although the US centre for disease control and prevention (CDC) had issued a health alert warning travellers that parts of China carried a risk of tick born encephalitis (TBE) the school did not tell parents or students about the risk or emphasise the need for precautions.
During the trip the students hiked through rural areas. The students were allowed to wear shorts and short sleeves and wander off the set trails. Several students were bitten by insects. About a week and a half later, Cara developed a crushing headache and high fever. When it became clear that it wasn’t just the flu, the chaperones took her to the local hospital. Several days later she was transferred to a Beijing in a semi-comatose state with all of her limbs contracted and her eyes rolled back. Doctors were unable to determine what was wrong and initial tests for insect borne diseases were negative.
Cara was eventually flown back to the United States and was treated in a New York hospital. She slowly regained her mobility but she moves awkwardly and has weakened arm and hand control. She has difficulty remembering to do things and planning ahead and she requires extra time and help with tests. Unfortunately she has been unable to speak since contracting the disease.
The school in its Defence argued that Cara’s parents were negligent because Cara did not pack bug spray – even though it was on a list of items to bring or use on the trip. The school also argued that the Munns assumed the risk when they signed an assumption of risk/waiver release form before the trip. The US Court found the waiver void but allowed the school to argue assumption of the risk.
The family relied on 3 documents to prove their case:
● Both the CDC health advisory and the British health services had warned that there was a risk of TBE in several forest regions at the time of the trip.
● Travax, a site for medical professionals travelling abroad also warned of a risk of lyme disease, another tick borne illness in a report written by the Defence’s own expert.
● It was argued that a competent private school running an overseas programme for minors should read all of the available health information and carefully supervise the minors entrusted to it.
The jury awarded the Munns $41.75 million dollars which the school have now appealed.
Speaking about this judgement Liam Moloney, personal injury Solicitor in Naas said today “schools in Ireland should realise that they have serious exposure risks if they don’t run their overseas field trips carefully. They should take a much closer look at their safety protections, preparation procedures and education of supervisors on these trips. It is inevitable that schools would be sued for negligence if they do not ensure that these safety precautions are taken.”