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Business and Policy Areas
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Higher Education Community Submits Brief in Connecticut Study Abroad Lawsuit

October 27, 2016

The final decision in a recent lawsuit could necessitate a sizeable increase in both risk-management and administrative burdens for all schools offering study-abroad experiences. 

The case in question involves a high school student in Connecticut who was awarded a $41.5 million jury award after contracting an extremely rare tick-borne virus while traveling in China on a school sponsored study-abroad program.

The student's institution, the Hotchkiss School, appealed the award last year. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals has asked the Connecticut Supreme Court to answer certain questions about Connecticut state law before rendering its final decision, namely whether there is a state public policy requirement for schools to warn or protect against serious insect-borne diseases when organizing trips abroad, and whether the size of the award to the student was appropriate.

NACUBO and 23 other associations submitted an amici curiae brief, led by the American Council on Education, to the Connecticut Supreme Court earlier this month in support of Hotchkiss. 

The amici curiae brief was mostly silent on whether or not the award size was appropriate and dealt primarily with the question of the school's public policy duty to warn and guard students specifically against a risk of insect-borne disease. The plaintiff in the case argued that such a duty existed because the Center for Disease Control's (CDC) website generally warns that such a risk is present in East Asia and forested areas of northeastern China.

The associations' brief argued instead that a ruling in favor of the public policy duty of the school in this case would result in an imposition of so many warnings for study abroad programs that would "(1) likely [bury] warnings about imminent risks among a litany of other warnings and (2) radically and negatively [impact] the number and type of international student experiences schools will continue to offer their students." The brief goes on to argue that such a chilling effect on study abroad programs would be particularly detrimental to students at a time when "foreign study and travel abroad...are indispensable to 21st Century education." 

The Second Circuit Court of Appeals will wait to render its decision until the Connecticut Supreme Court has ruled on the state law concerns. A final decision is likely many months away.

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Megan Schneider
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