We are into the second week of the Connecticut Supreme Court’s 2017-2018 year. Here’s a look at this week’s cases:

Monday, September 18th

The first case is Francini v. Goodspeed Airport, LLC, SC 19705, where the Supreme Court will consider whether the Appellate Court properly held that an easement by necessity for a landlocked parcel is not limited only to ingress and egress. The trial court had rejected the plaintiff’s claim that his property’s easement by necessity to access a public highway also included a right of way to access commercial utilities and the Appellate Court reversed.

The second case is State v. Urbanowki, SC 19678, where the Court will consider whether evidence that the defendant in a strangulation prosecution had previously attempted to choke another woman was harmless error.

Tuesday, September 19th

As part of its public education goals, each year the Connecticut Supreme Court holds an “On Circuit” program where it hears oral arguments at an area law school, college, or high school. This year, the venue for the “On Circuit” program will be the University of New Haven and two cases will be argued.

The first case is Brooks v. Powers, SC 19727, which addresses governmental immunity. The plaintiff is the estate of a woman whose body washed up on the shore. A report had been made to the local police department that she was near the ocean during a severe storm and in need of medical attention, but no one responded. The issue is whether the imminent harm, identifiable victim exception to discretionary act immunity applies. The trial court had concluded that it does, granting summary judgment. A divided panel of the Appellate Court reversed.

The second case, State v. Panek, 19772, is about the meaning of the “not in plain view” element of the video voyeurism statute and, specifically, whether it must be evaluated from the perspective of the defendant or the public at-large. The trial court concluded that the former was the correct test, and granted the defendant’s motion to dismiss because the alleged victims were in his immediate physical presence. The State appealed and the Appellate Court affirmed, agreeing with the trial court.

Continue Reading Week Two at the Connecticut Supreme Court

The Connecticut Supreme Court ‘s 2017-2018 sitting kicks off on Monday. From September 11th through September 28th, the Court will hear oral arguments in nineteen cases. Here’s a look at first week:

Monday, September 11th

The new year starts with a divorce case and a zoning case. In Reinke v. Sing, SC 19687, the Supreme Court will consider whether a family court, without a finding of fraud, has jurisdiction to open a dissolution judgment several years after it was entered based on a party’s failure to disclose certain assets at the time of the divorce. The case has garnered interest from the Connecticut Bar Association and the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, which both urge for a reversal of the Appellate Court’s decision which had determined that, absent a finding of fraud, the trial court was without jurisdiction to open the dissolution judgment.

The second case is Piece of Paradise, LLC v. Borough of Fenwick Zoning of Appeals, SC 19890, a zoning a dispute over property related to actress Katherine Hepburn’s former Fenwick Estate “Paradise” set on Long Island Sound and built in 1939. At issue is whether the zoning board’s denial of a variance from a 2011 amendment to the zoning regulations, which imposed new setback requirements that effectively barred the property owner from building a single-family home on a parcel that was formerly part of a larger parcel containing the Hepburn home, constitutes a regulatory taking of property.

Continue Reading Week One at the Connecticut Supreme Court

In Munn v. The Hotchkiss School, the Second Circuit certified two questions to the Connecticut Supreme Court to help it decide an appeal from a $41.5 million jury verdict awarded to a student who contracted a serious tick-borne disease while on a month-long study abroad program in China:  (1) does Connecticut public policy support imposing a duty on a school to warn or protect against the risk of serious insect-borne disease when it organizes a trip abroad; and (2) if so, does an award of approximately $41.5 million in favor of the plaintiff, $31.5 million of which are  noneconomic damages, warrant remittitur?  For our prior coverage of the arguments, click here.

On August 11, 2017, the Connecticut Supreme Court issued its decision, concluding that Connecticut public policy supports a school’s duty to warn and protect students from serious tick-borne disease on a school-sponsored trip abroad. The Court reiterated the well-established duty of Connecticut schools with custody of minor children to use reasonable care to protect those children from foreseeable harms during school sponsored activities.  The Court found no compelling reason to create an exception to this rule for “foreseeable insect-borne diseases.”

In deciding whether to create such an exception, the Court evaluated four public policy factors: (1) the normal expectations of the participants; (2) balancing the public policy of encouraging participation in the activity against the safety of the participants; (3) avoidance of increased litigation; and (4) decisions in other jurisdictions.

Continue Reading Connecticut Supreme Court Upholds Duty of Schools to Warn or Protect Against Insect-borne Diseases in Travel Abroad Programs

Argument Recap:  Munn v. The Hotchkiss School, SC 19525

The Connecticut Supreme Court heard oral argument this term in Munn v. The Hotchkiss School to decide whether Connecticut public policy supports imposing a duty on a school to warn about or protect against a serious insect-borne disease when it organizes a trip abroad.

The case arises from a month-long trip to China organized by Hotchkiss, a private secondary boarding school. Eighteen students went on the trip, including 15 year-old Cara Munn.  While in China, Munn contracted a serious tick-borne disease that left her with catastrophic physical and mental disabilities, including the inability to speak. According to the CDC, Munn was the first reported case of tick-borne encephalitis (TBE) in a U.S. traveler to China.

Munn sued Hotchkiss in federal court for negligence. She claimed that Hotchkiss failed to warn her of the risks of tick-borne diseases and failed to require her to wear protective clothing or apply insect repellent.  The jury awarded the plaintiff $41.5 million in damages for her injuries.

Hotchkiss appealed to the Second Circuit on various grounds, including the foreseeability of the harm to Munn and the scope of Hotchkiss’ duty to warn and to protect students in these circumstances. The Second Circuit determined that the harm here was foreseeable.  Foreseeability is not enough to impose a legal duty, however.  Public policy must also support the imposition of a legal duty. Because this question of state law was unresolved in Connecticut, the Second Circuit certified two questions to the Connecticut Supreme Court: (1) Does Connecticut public policy support imposing a duty on a school to warn about or protect against the risk of a serious insect-borne disease when it organizes a trip abroad?  (2) If so, does an award of approximately $41.5 million in favor of the plaintiffs, $31.5 million of which are non-economic damages, warrant remittitur?

In evaluating whether public policy supports the imposition of a duty, the Connecticut Supreme Court considers four factors: (1) the normal expectations of the participants in the activity under review; (2) the public policy of encouraging participation in the activity, while weighing the safety of the participants; (3) the avoidance of increased litigation; and (4) the decisions of other jurisdictions.

Munn argues that these public policy factors require the Court to recognize that schools, as custodians of children, have a broad duty to warn and protect the students in their care. In the context of school trips, this duty extends to risks identified in governmental advisories, no matter how remote.

Hotchkiss acknowledges that schools have a general duty to protect their students, but argues that the duty does not extend to harm that is “undeniably remote.” Foreign travel involves countless risks, many of which are foreseeable but extremely remote.  In its brief, Hotchkiss gives many examples of such risks, including an earthquake in the Himalayas, a tsunami in Japan, a hotel fire in a country with lower safety standards, or a nuclear power plant disaster.  Requiring schools to identify, warn about, and protect against such “undeniably remote” risks would be extremely burdensome and would entail an unacceptable amount of risk.  As a result, schools would provide far fewer educational travel opportunities for their students, to the detriment of the students.

At oral argument, the justices seemed to be most interested in the “remoteness” issue, with both parties receiving questions about the remoteness of the risk at issue in this case, and the burden on the school to warn about and protect against that risk.

The Connecticut Supreme Court also heard argument on the second question certified to it: whether the jury’s award of $41.5 million, including $31.5 million of non-economic damages, warrants a remittitur. The basic test in Connecticut  for reviewing the amount of a jury verdict is “whether the size of the verdict so shocks the sense of justice as to compel the conclusion that the jury [was] influenced by partiality, prejudice, mistake or corruption . . .” However, the Connecticut Supreme Court has not set specific criteria for evaluating whether a jury award is excessive.

At oral argument, the Court inquired whether it would be appropriate for it to order a remittitur where it was “three steps removed” from that decision, since a jury had already awarded damages and the trial judge had already upheld the damages award. The Court also asked questions to better understand not only how the verdict shocks the conscience, but how it compels the conclusion that the jury was influenced by improper factors.

This case will be closely watched by the over 450 private schools in Connecticut, as well as the many colleges and universities, camps, and other organizations that provide educational and recreational opportunities for children and teenagers on trips and in nature. The Court’s decision will have far-reaching effects on the availability of such trips and programs, and the ability of Connecticut’s youth to participate in such trips and programs to learn important practical and life skills, develop independence, and develop a sense of responsibility.

We will continue to monitor and provide updates on this important case.

Ruling Recap: Gold v. Rowland, SC 19585

Last October, we reported on the issues at stake in Gold v. Rowland, the class action that claims that Connecticut state employees were members entitled to shares of stock when their insurer, Anthem, demutualized in 2001.  The employees had asked the Supreme Court to reverse the trial court’s ruling that (1) Anthem’s Articles of Incorporation should be considered together with other documents in the Anthem-Blue Cross merger, (2) those documents were ambiguous on the issue of whether the employees were members, and (3) extrinsic evidence showed that the parties intended for only the state, as the policyholder, to be a member.  Alternatively, the employees had argued that even if the documents were ambiguous, the trial court should not have considered extrinsic evidence and instead should have directly applied the rule of contra proferentem to interpret the documents against the drafter, Anthem, and in favor of the employees.  In a decision with an official release date of April 11, 2017, the Supreme Court rejected the employees’ arguments and affirmed the trial court.

Continue Reading The $100 Million Question is Answered With Extrinsic Evidence, Not Contra Proferentem

The Connecticut Supreme Court’s Seventh Term begins today and ends on Thursday, April 6th. Here’s a look at the first week of the March/April term:

Monday, March 27, 2017

The Court starts the term by hearing oral argument in Munn v. Hotchkiss, SC 19525, which is a federal lawsuit that resulted in a $41.5 million verdict in favor of a fifteen year old student who contracted tick-borne encephalitis while on a study abroad program in China that was organized by her Connecticut high school. The Second Circuit certified to the Supreme Court the question of whether Connecticut public policy imposes a duty on schools to warn about or protect against the risk of a serious insect-borne disease when it organizes a trip abroad.  The second case of the day is State v. Holley, SC 19598, which is the State’s appeal from the Appellate Court’s decision reversing a felony murder conviction based on testimony from non-expert witnesses that went beyond the limitations on lay opinion set forth in Code of Evidence section 7-1.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

The Court hears argument in Machado v. Taylor, SC 19838, where the State is claiming that it is shielded by sovereign immunity for injuries caused when a Department of Transportation truck hit the plaintiff’s vehicle because the plaintiff failed to prove that the State had obtained insurance coverage for its truck. In State v. Harris, SC 19649, the defendant, supported by an Innocence Project amicus brief, asks the Court to reconsider the test for eyewitness identifications in light of new scientific developments on the accuracy of such identifications.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

The Court hears two criminal cases. The first, State v. Kelley, SC 19694, asks whether a trial court loses jurisdiction to find a defendant in violation of his probation when it fails to dispose of the charge within 120 days after the arraignment. State v. Houghtaling, SC 19510, presents a Fourth Amendment question as to whether a residential property owner has standing to object to a search when he is leasing the property.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

The first case of the day is Maturo v. State Employees Retirement Commission, SC 19831, which asks whether a retired municipal firefighter becomes ineligible for his pension when he gets elected to be the town’s mayor. The second case, James v. Commissioner of Correction, SC 19787, will address whether and how presentence confinement credits apply when the defendant’s convictions where obtained after multiple trials.

 

Argument Recap:  Channing Real Estate, LLC v. Gates, SC19575

The Connecticut Supreme Court recently heard argument in Channing Real Estate, LLC v. Gates, an appeal that rose out of a failed real estate development joint venture.  This case presents two issues of interest to Connecticut’s business community.  The first issue is whether the whole case needs to be retried after an appellate ruling that the parol evidence rule blocks evidence of prior and contemporaneous statements from varying the meaning of promissory notes.  The second issue is whether the payor on those notes can counterclaim under the Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices Act (“CUTPA”) when he was a member of a limited liability company that was working on a joint venture with the limited liability company that was the payee.  This post will focus on the application of CUTPA to joint ventures, which is an issue of first impression for the Supreme Court.

Since it was enacted in 1973, CUTPA has been the basis for countless lawsuits in part because it is one of the few vehicles that litigants can use to recover their attorneys’ fees and punitive damages. Conn. Gen. Stat. § 42-110g.  Indeed, the defendant in this lawsuit, Mr. Gates, was awarded his attorneys’ fees by the trial court even though he did not prove he was entitled to damages on his CUTPA claim.  The courts have interpreted CUTPA broadly, citing its remedial purpose, but they also have ruled that certain conduct cannot violate CUTPA because it is not “trade” or “commerce” as required under the statute.  One of those categories of conduct that is outside of the bounds of CUTPA is intra-corporate or intra-partnership disputes.  In its appeal, Channing Real Estate, LLC argues that this is a dispute between former joint venturers, and that therefore Mr. Gates cannot pursue his CUTPA counterclaim.  Although the appellate courts have ruled a few times on what is or is not an internal business dispute outside of the reach of CUTPA, this case presents a fresh opportunity to clarify whether CUTPA applies to disputes in business arrangements that are not corporations or partnerships.

Continue Reading Does CUTPA apply to negotiations?

Here’s a look at the second week of the Connecticut Supreme Court’s November 2016 term:

Monday, November 14th

The Court starts the week by hearing oral arguments in two criminal cases. In State v. Tilus, SC 19503, an appeal from a robbery conviction of a convenience store, the Court will consider whether a prosecutor equating the defendant’s claim that the victim-convenience store operated an illegal lottery with arguing that a sexual assault victim was a prostitute constituted prosecutorial impropriety. In Taylor v. Commissioner of Correction, SC 19462, the Court will decide if a trial court’s error in sealing the contents of a juror’s note without first sharing it with defense counsel is subject to harmless error analysis.

Continue Reading November Term: Week Two

Argument Recap:  Lackman v. McAnulty, SC 19668

On October 14, the Connecticut Supreme Court heard arguments in the appeal of Lackman v. McAnulty, SC 19668, a case in which two nieces sued their two aunts in a battle over real estate from their grandfather’s estate.  The underlying question was whether the “Property” should pass through the grandfather’s revocable trust – in which case the aunts shared in the Property – or whether the property should pass by specific bequest in the grandfather’s will – in which case only the nieces and their father would get the Property.

Continue Reading How is a decedent’s property dispersed: Revocable Trust or Will?

Argument Recap:  Jefferson Allen, et al. v. Commissioner of Revenue Services, SC 19567

The Supreme Court heard oral argument in the case of Jefferson Allen, et al. v. Commissioner of Revenue Services, SC 19567, on October 13, 2016.  The issues in the case concern the constitutionality of Connecticut’s taxation of the exercise of qualified stock options by former residents when the options had no readily ascertainable value when received as part of compensation for work performed in Connecticut.  As part of this question, the Court is asked to interpret certain tax regulations referencing the applicable time period for taxing income derived from or connected with sources within this state.  Finally, because the nonresidents actually filed and paid income taxes within Connecticut for income from the exercise of qualified stock options in 2002, but later tried to amend and get a refund of those taxes, the Court is asked to address the issue of whether the statute of limitations is jurisdictional and equitably tolled by the existence of an audit.

Continue Reading Can Connecticut tax income from certain stock options exercised after the recipient (employee) moves out of state?