A federal jury in Bridgeport, CT, recently awarded $41.7 million in damages to a former student of The Hotchkiss School who participated in a class trip to China. The lessons learned from this verdict apply to schools that participate in both domestic and foreign travel, along with those schools that enroll international students. With this verdict, the threshold for negligence has changed and must be acknowledged in the policies and practices of every school.
A 9th grade student at Hotchkiss contracted a tick-borne disease while on the China journey that reportedly left her unable to speak and brain damaged. Founded in 1897, The Hotchkiss School is a private boarding school in Lakeville, CT. With a an usually diverse student population of approximately 600 in grades 9 - 12, this school has established a strong reputation for academic excellence, that includes the Center for Global Understanding and Independent Thinking.
The threshold for negligence changes each verdict such as this. “Hotchkiss failed to take basic safety precautions to protect the minor children in its care,” attorney Antonio Ponvert III said. “I hope that this case will help alert all schools who sponsor overseas trips for minors."
Attorneys for the school argued that tick-borne encephalitis is such a rare disease that it could not have been foreseen as a risk and could not be expected to warn Munn or require her to use protection against it.
Before embarking on your next student field trip or mission trip, it's important to evaluate the risks involved and how to best mitigate those risks. This consideration of liability also applies for those schools that enroll foreign students. Are sufficient protections in place for the school, host family, and other people involved?
The key questions to ask in conducting a risk assessment are:
- What are the risks?
- Who might be harmed and how?
- Who might unintentionally or intentionally cause harm?
- How can these risks be prevented or mitigated?
Maintain a written record of your research and conclusions, along with the plans that are implemented in response. Then, regularly review your assessment and update when necessary.
Develop and use a comprehensive liability release form for all trips and students. A liability release is a voluntary discharge of a claim and a surrender of a person's right to prosecute in the event of injury or loss. Note the distinction between saying, "I understand the risks associated with my participation," as opposed to, "I agree that I will not sue you if I am injured or experience some other loss." In general, acts of gross negligence or intentional misconduct are difficult to protect with a liability release form. The release should be clearly written with the appropriate wording, and be signed by all parties involved. The advice of an attorney should be sought to structure this agreement.
The risk assessment is only as effective as the follow up actions the leadership takes to address the issues identified. Training, for students and adults, in advance and during the educational experience is critical to ensure the mitigation of any risk factors. This training should include identification of the risks involved along with the actions that are or should be taken to maximize safety.
The viability of your organization depends on how effectively your leadership manages risk. With new events and legal actions, the threshold for liability continues to change, so each board and chief administrator has responsibility for staying current with these events and responding accordingly. Schools that participate in the School Growth Association for enrolling international students are provided with important documentation through the agreements that we use. For more information about the Association, Click Here.