Woman Who Contracted Encephalitis on School Trip Awarded $41.7M

A New York woman left brain-damaged after contracting a tick-borne illness

ByABC News
March 29, 2013, 7:42 AM

March 29, 2013— -- A Connecticut jury has awarded $41.7 million to a New York woman left brain-damaged and unable to speak properly after contracting a tick-borne illness while on a school-supervised trip to China.

Cara Munn, now 20, of New York City, was a student at the prestigious Hotchkiss boarding school in Lakeville, Conn. She contracted encephalitis from tick bites while hiking in a rural area on a school-sponsored trip to China in the summer of 2007.

A federal jury in Bridgeport, Conn., agreed with Munn's attorneys, who argued the school failed to ensure that its traveling students take sufficient precautions against ticks.

"It's a horrible thing that could have been prevented very easily and they [Hotchkiss] didn't as far as I'm concerned," Cara's father Orson told ABC News. "It was a pattern of negligence that went on and on, and we are unhappy, we are furious."

Fellow students of Munn's on the trip became sick as well, though their reactions were less severe.

"Hotchkiss failed to take basic safety precautions to protect the minor children in its care," said Munn's attorney Antonio Ponvert III, according to the Associated Press. "I hope that this case will help alert all schools who sponsor overseas trips for minors that they need to check the CDC for disease risks in the areas where they will be travelling."

Encephalitis is an acute inflammation of the brain that can be caused by either a viral or bacterial infection. In serious cases of the disease, symptoms can include seizures, hallucinations, memory loss, and permanent neurological damage.

"These are nasty viruses that cause the inflammation of the brain substance itself," Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center told ABC News. "They are very rare in the United States fortunately, and those infections that do occur in the Far East tend to be more severe," he said.

The Hotchkiss School, which is appealing the jury award, disputes claims it was negligent and argued that Tick-Borne Encephalitis is so rare, it should not have been expected to warn Munn about protecting herself from it.

"As part of our due diligence prior to this 2007 trip to China, we thoroughly checked the CDC website for medical advice and asked parents to do the same," Hotchkiss told ABC News in an emailed statement. "There was never any indication that there was a potential risk of a disabling tick bite. In fact, this was the only reported such case of this disease (Tick-Borne Encephalitis Virus) in all of China."

"We remain very saddened by this student's illness, and we continue to hope for improvements to her health," the statement concluded.

Munn says his daughter has difficulty making a fist, difficulty swallowing, issues with her gait, and most importantly, speaking. "She is saying words that are very difficult to understand for most people," he said.

Cara communicates using a text-to-speech program on her iPhone, but her father says she can type words out only slowly. "It's very difficult as teenagers because teenagers talk a mile a minute and it's very difficult to stay on the conversation if you type at 10 words a minute," he said.

Dr. Schaffner says there are several things you can do to protect yourself from tick bites, including wearing clothing that covers, using tick repellant, and inspecting yourself and your companions for ticks and removing them as quickly as possible.

Munn says his daughter continues to receive care every week, and that the family is researching alternative methods of treatment. "She is very humorous because her personality comes out in her writing," Mr. Munn said. "She has a great sense of humor, she has an incredible optimism about life."