Munn v. Hotchkiss Sch., 3:09–cv–919 (SRU).

Decision Date05 June 2014
Docket NumberNo. 3:09–cv–919 (SRU).,3:09–cv–919 (SRU).
CourtU.S. District Court — District of Connecticut
PartiesCara MUNN, et al., Plaintiffs, v. The HOTCHKISS SCHOOL, Defendant.

24 F.Supp.3d 155

Cara MUNN, et al., Plaintiffs,

No. 3:09–cv–919 (SRU).

United States District Court, D. Connecticut.

Signed June 5, 2014

Motion denied.

[24 F.Supp.3d 163]

Alinor Clemans Sterling, Bridgeport, CT, Antonio Ponvert, III, Michael P. Koskoff, William M. Bloss, Koskoff, Koskoff & Bieder, P.C., Bridgeport, CT, for Plaintiffs.

Aaron S. Bayer, Carolina D. Ventura, Jeffrey R. Babbin, Jessica Bruno Vetter, Penny Q. Seaman, Wiggin & Dana, New Haven, CT, Daniel J. Krisch, Karen L. Dowd, Kenneth James Bartschi, Halloran & Sage, LLP, Hartford, CT, Michael T. McGinley, Wiggin & Dana LLP, Stamford, CT, Wesley W. Horton, Horton, Shields & Knox, Hartford, CT, for Defendant.


STEFAN R. UNDERHILL, District Judge.

In July 2007, Cara Munn contracted tick-borne encephalitis (“TBE”) while on a trip to China sponsored by her boarding school, The Hotchkiss School (“Hotchkiss”). TBE attacks the central nervous system, causing swelling in the brain and spinal cord. In severe cases, the inflammation results in permanent brain damage. Munn suffered that fate: She has lost the ability to speak; she has little control over her facial muscles, so that she always appears to be smiling and often drools uncontrollably; and she has cognitive deficits that slow her ability to think through complex problems.

Munn and her parents, Orson and Christine Munn (collectively “the Munns”), filed this lawsuit alleging that Hotchkiss's negligent planning of the trip and careless supervision during the trip caused Cara to fall ill. On March 27, 2013, after seven days of evidence including testimony from the Munns, school personnel, and almost a dozen experts, the jury found Hotchkiss solely liable for Munn's injuries. It awarded the Munns $10.25 million in past

[24 F.Supp.3d 164]

and future economic damages, and $31.5 million in non-economic damages.

Hotchkiss now challenges that verdict and award, moving for judgment as a matter of law under Rule 50(b) (doc. 206), or, in the alternative, for a new trial under Rule 59 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (doc. 207). The school asserts five claims in support of its motions: (1) Munn's infection was unforeseeable; (2) Munn failed to prove that she was infected with TBE in a specific location; (3) the court mismanaged expert testimony; (4) Mr. and Mrs. Munns' negligence contributed to Munn's injury; and (5) a $41.75 million verdict is excessive. Hotchkiss additionally moves to alter judgment (doc. 209). For the reasons set forth, the combined motions are denied, and the motion to alter judgment is denied as moot in light of the parties' joint stipulation regarding collateral source reduction (doc. 251).

I. Background A. Facts

Munn entered Hotchkiss as a fourteen-year-old freshman in the fall of 2006. Trial Tr. 988:12. During the winter of her first year, Munn learned of Hotchkiss's international programs, and, after discussion with her mother, she signed-up for Hotchkiss's summer school in Tianjin, China. Trial Tr. 912:9–18. The China program immersed students in Chinese language and culture; for one month, participants attended intensive language classes at a high school during the week and visited cultural landmarks on the weekends. Pls.' Trial Ex. 11.

During the spring semester, Jean Yu, the director of Hotchkiss's Chinese Language and Culture Program and the trip leader, and David Thompson, the director of Hotchkiss's International Programs, provided students and parents with information about the trip. In early March 2007, Yu sent an email with two attachments: a packet that outlined the trip's activities and a set of legal forms that asked participants and parents to waive legal claims against the school. Def.'s Trial Exs. 507, 616. The packet mentioned that the students would visit “Mount Pan” 1 as part of a Tianjin city tour. Def.'s Trial Ex. 506, at 2; Def.'s Trial Ex. 507, at 4. Parents were instructed to sign and return the waiver. Def.'s Trial Ex. 616, at 1. Christine Munn, Munn's mother, and Munn both signed the waiver. Pls.' Mot. in Limine, Ex. C (doc. 143).

In April 2007, Yu followed up with another email with medical advice for trip participants. Pls.' Trial Ex. 2. It included a link to a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”) webpage and instructed parents that the Hotchkiss infirmary could “serve as a travel clinic.” Id. But the advice was inaccurate; the web address linked to a webpage on Central America, not China, and the school infirmary was only available to administer vaccines prescribed by an outside doctor and could not give students independent advice on medical risks abroad. Trial Tr. 79:4–19, 209:14–16, 220:4–7. According to Thompson, the school expected students to know about the school clinic's limitations and to “go to a travel medicine specialist or a travel clinic at home ... when the students would have two, two and-a-half weeks [of spring break].” Trial Tr. 237:1–9.

Yu also sent recipients a complete itinerary, a packing list, and a handbook on international travel. Pls.' Trial Ex. 2. The

[24 F.Supp.3d 165]

itinerary again listed “Mount Pan” as part of a city tour. Pls.' Trial Ex. 10. The packing list mentioned bug spray under the category “Miscellaneous,” just above the item “musical instrument.” Pls.' Trial Ex. 2. The travel handbook contained no warnings about insect-borne disease, though it devoted pages to other health risks, including a reminder to be wary of foreign blood banks in the event a student required surgery abroad and advice to bring American condoms to China to avoid using faulty protection and contracting a serious sexually-transmitted disease. Pls.' Trial Ex. 1.

Thus, as Munn headed to China, neither she nor her parents had notice that she would visit a non-urban, forested area that might contain ticks or other insects carrying disease. Nor had Munn or her parents received any warnings about how to prevent insect-borne disease during the trip. The first few weeks of Munn's trip proceeded without incident: she attended classes, visited sites, and made new friends. Yu testified that the students were all healthy during that time and that she only heard complaints about bug bites once, when the children visited Nanking University at dusk. Trial Tr. 569:11–570:8.

On June 23, 2007, the students left for a weekend excursion about sixty miles from Tianjin's city center. The students visited the Great Wall in the early morning, and they arrived at Mount Panshan in the late morning or very early afternoon. Trial Tr. 594:11–22. According to video and pictures admitted at trial, Mount Panshan is a forested peak that sits next to several other smaller foothills. Pls.' Trial Exs. 20, 405; Def.'s Trial Ex. 614. It is surrounded by what Americans might call an exurban landscape—a traditionally rural community with growing housing density created by commuters to the cities. Trial Tr. 512:12–18, 551:14–17.

No one had warned students that they should dress for a serious hike—all walked up the mountain in shorts and t-shirts or tank tops, and some even wore sandals instead of sneakers. Def.'s Trial Ex. 614. No one warned students to apply bug spray before they trekked up the mountain. Indeed, Yu left her bug spray on the bus. Trial Tr. 540:15–24. At the beginning of the hike, a guide led students up a paved pathway to a set of temples at the top of the mountain. Trial Tr. 592:6–10. At the top of the mountain the group split-up: Teachers, chaperones, and the majority of students rode a cable car down the mountain. Trial Tr. 519:1–522:25, 538:1–540:25. Munn and two or three other students, however, asked to walk down the mountain by themselves. Id. Yu pointed them towards the path and said she would wait for them at the bottom. Id.

According to Munn's uncontroverted testimony, the students decided to leave the paved path and venture down Mount Panshan on narrow dirt trails that connected other temples on the mountain. Trial Tr. 526:1–533:25, 1007:22–1008:15. Munn recounted that the hikers quickly became lost and ended up walking among trees and through brush before eventually finding the path and reconnecting with the others. Trial Tr. 1029:7–25. The students then visited another forested area of Mount Panshan, one reached by a dirt path. Pls.' Trial Ex. 20; Trial Tr. 1029:1–1030:25.

After the trip to Mount Panshan, Munn recalled having many insect bites and a welt on her arm. Trial Tr. 1008:14–22, 1034:17–1035:13. Other than itchy discomfort, though, she felt fine. Trial Tr. 1034:17–1035:7, 1036:8–10. Ten days later she awoke with flu-like symptoms—a headache, a fever, and wooziness. Pls.'

[24 F.Supp.3d 166]

Trial Ex. 36–2; Trial Tr. 693:6–16. Munn then grew more disoriented, and Yu decided to take her to the local hospital.

From that point, Munn's condition deteriorated rapidly. Pls.' Trial Ex. 36–2, 36–3. The local hospital transferred her to a Beijing hospital, and her parents arrived from the United States. Trial Tr. 694:1–11, 915:19–916:16; Pls.' Trial Ex. 36–2, at 29; Pls.' Trial Ex. 36–3, at 4–5, 7. They found her severely ill. Trial Tr. 915:22–916:14; Pls.' Trial Ex. 36–3, at 23. She was partially paralyzed. Pls.' Trial Ex. 36–3, at 23, 25; Trial Tr. 694:5–6; 918:10–919:2. She could not speak. Pls.' Trial Ex. 36–3, at 23, 25; Trial Tr. 694:15–20. She dipped into a semi-comatose state. Pls.' Trial Ex. 36–3, at 25; Trial Tr. 918:15–25. Once it became clear that Munn's condition would not improve quickly, her father arranged for her to be airlifted to New York, where she was admitted to New York Presbyterian Hospital. Trial Tr. 919:3–8, 990:22–991:15; Pls.' Trial Ex. 36–5, at 1.

After a week at New York Presbyterian and a month at a rehabilitation center, Munn's condition stabilized and improved, but she was left permanently disabled. She never regained the ability...

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