Pa. high court: judge properly reduced $14M verdict to $500K for girl run over by school bus

IndustriesAssociated Press

A $14 million jury award to a suburban Philadelphia girl who was run over by a school bus was properly reduced to $500,000, the state's highest court ruled.

The Supreme Court on Wednesday said the cap on damages applied to Ashley Zauflik, who lost her left leg and suffered other severe injuries when she was hurt by the Pennsbury High School bus seven years ago.

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State law makes many governmental entities immune from civil liability but permits damages of up to $500,000 for motor vehicle accidents and in other cases.

"The facts here are tragic, involving a school student who suffered grievous injuries caused by the uncontested negligence of the school district's employee," wrote Chief Justice Ronald Castille. But he said the law had previously been upheld on appeal, and suggested it may be better for the Legislature to address the "complicated public policy questions."

The $500,000 cap has not been changed in more than three decades. In a three-justice concurrence, Justice Max Baer said the cap is now so low that it may have the practical effect of being a barrier to the right to a jury trial.

"Simply put, plaintiffs' counsel cannot responsibly agree to enter an appearance in a case where there will be no or (a minimal) return to the client because of the costs and fees necessary to secure a successful result," Baer wrote.

Zauflik was a 17-year-old junior when she was dragged under the bus, resulting in a crushed pelvis and the amputation of her leg 6 inches above her knee. She made undisclosed settlements with the bus manufacturer and others.

Her lawyer, Tom Kline, said Thursday she was very disappointed in the justices' decision "but we are already at work this morning to get this fixed for future Ashleys by getting the law changed."

Steve Cozen, who represented the school district, said the Legislature might move to change the limit but will have to balance changing demographics and other factors against the pressure on governmental treasuries.

"You're going to have a really healthy dialogue on both sides about that issue," Cozen said Thursday. "I think that was really what this case was all about. We'll see whether or not anybody takes their arguments to the General Assembly and sees what the General Assembly does with them."

A federal investigation concluded the district-employed bus driver hit the accelerator instead of the brake before running into a group of 20 students, among which Zauflik was the most seriously injured. The driver disputed that finding but the district admitted before trial that it was liable.

Zauflik had argued the cap on damages violated several of her rights, including equal protection provisions of the state and federal constitutions.