$41.5 Million Hotchkiss Award Upheld

BY BRIGITTE RUTHMAN, REPUBLICAN-AMERICAN

SALISBURY - A federal appeals court decision this week upheld a jury's decision to award a former student $41.5 million in a lawsuit against Hotchkiss School.

Cara Munn was a 15-year-old freshman in 2007 when she contracted tick-born encephalitis during a school-sponsored trip to China. The illness left her crippled and unable to speak.

Hotchkiss School and its attorney, Wesley W. Horton, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Thursday.

A three-judge panel of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected claims of a flawed trial raised in a n appeal filed by the private boarding school.

Munn's attorney, Antonio Ponvert, argued at the trial court level that the school had failed in its obligation to protect Munn against tickborne diseases. The three judges agreed Ponvert successfully proved that the tick bite happened during a hike Munn took into tick habitat without precautions. She returned with a large welt on her arm. The school had claimed evidence was insufficient to prove the bite occurred during the hike.

The school also produced a document signed by the girl's mother exempting it from harm, except for situations caused by the sole negligence of the school. The validity of the w aiver was debated, but it was discounted by the jury, which found the school to blame.

Munn walks with difficulty. Her words are indecipherable. She communicates by typing, holding one finger with another hand. Her facial expression is frozen in a wide-eyed grin, unable to react to others.

It's unclear when the school will settle the case with a payment, which would be used for Munn's care. Hotchkiss still has the option of requesting an "en banc" review, asking the entire Second Circuit to hear the case rather than three judges. The school has until Feb. 20 to respond.

Contact Brigitte Ruthman at [email protected].