|Ashley Zauflik at her 2011 civil trial|
Monday, July 15, 2013
State court upholds reducing $14 million verdict for Falls woman who lost leg as teen
Posted: Friday, July 5, 2013
A state appellate court has upheld a damage cap that effectively reduces to $500,000 a $14 million jury award to a Falls woman who lost a leg as a teen after she was hit by a Pennsbury school bus.
In its ruling Wednesday, the three-member Commonwealth Court noted that the courts upheld the state cap previously, Judge Renee Cohn Jubelirer wrote in the opinion. She cited case law that placed responsibility for changing the law with the state Legislature, not the courts.
“As tragic as the circumstances are in this case, we are constrained by the precedential case law that has previously upheld the constitutionality of the statuary cap,” she wrote in the opinion.
Ashley Zauflik, now 23, was the most seriously injured of 20 students hit by an out-of-control bus outside Pennsbury High School’s East campus in January, 2007. She lost her left leg above the knee and sustained other injuries.
She sued the Pennsbury School District and a Bucks County jury awarded her the $14 million in 2011. With interest, the total award is nearly $16 million.
Five months later, though, Bucks County Judge Robert J. Mellon, who presided over the civil case, reduced the award to $500,000 citing the state’s liability cap for school districts and municipalities.
Pennsylvania law limits the amount of civil damage awards against local governments and school districts to $500,000 per incident.
Judge Rochelle S. Friedman wrote in a dissenting opinion that she believed the cap is unconstitutional. She noted that had Pennsbury used a private transportation company, Zauflik would have been entitled to receive the full jury award.
“Surely the Legislature can devise legislation that more fairly and adequately addresses this gross disparity,” Friedman wrote. “A school district that opts to furnish a service often provided by a private entity should be required to insure itself in the same manner as a private entity and be equally liable.”
Zauflik’s lead attorney Thomas Kline said he would appeal to the state Supreme Court, which upheld the state law limiting civil liability for state and local governments in 1981 and 1986.
Kline believes that Pennsbury could tap a $10 million excess liability policy the school district had in place at the time of the accident to cover a substantial portion of the original verdict.
Kline added he was encouraged by the tone of the appellate court judges’ opinion and their acknowledgement of “the manifest injustice of reducing by 97 percent.”
“We look forward to the day when our Supreme Court places Pennsylvania in line with other states, including New Jersey and New York, which do not have this draconian law, and which hold their state government entities responsible for their actions without adverse fiscal impact,” he added.
Jo Ciavaglia: 215-949-4181; email: jciavaglia@phillyBurbs.com; Twitter: @jociavaglia