|Ashley Zauflik leaves court in 2011|
Monday, November 24, 2014
Attorney: Zauflik 'very disappointed' at reduced award decision
Posted: Thursday, November 20, 2014
Pennsylvania’s highest court has upheld a reduced jury award — from $14 million to $502,661 — for a Falls woman who lost her leg after she was struck by a Pennsbury school bus in January 2007.
In an unanimous decision late Wednesday, the state Supreme Court said a $500,000 cap on damages awarded against state and local governments and school districts applies to Ashley Zauflik, now 24, who was the most seriously injured of the 20 students struck by an out-of-control school bus outside Pennsbury High School’s East campus.
Thomas Kline, the lead attorney in the Zauflik case, said his client is “very disappointed” with the decision.
“But we are already at work this morning to get this fixed for future Ashleys by getting the law changed in the Legislature,” Kline said in an email. “I remain optimistic of ultimately being successful.”
Kline declined to elaborate on what his plan involves.
Doylestown attorney William Goldman Jr., who has been with the Zauflik family since immediately after the accident, broke the news to Ashley about the decision.
“When I shared the news with her she cried and then collected herself and thanked us for our hard work on her behalf,” he said Wednesday. “She had the will to survive and her resilience will continue.”
The newspaper was not successful in immediately reaching Pennsbury School District for comment Thursday.
While the court had empathy for Zauflik, Chief Justice Ron Castille suggested it may be better for the Legislature to address the “complicated public policy questions raised.”
“The facts here are tragic, involving a school student who suffered grievous injuries caused by the uncontested negligence of the school district’s employee,” Castille said in the decision. “But the circumstances are not unprecedented, and the lower courts did not err in relying on our prior cases to uphold the legislation at issue, as against the present constitutional challenges.”
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court previously upheld the law limiting civil liability for state and local governments in 1981 and 1986.
Justice Max Baer echoed Castille’s suggestion that the state Assembly address the damages cap. “It is my hope that this case will serve as an impetus for legislative action to increase the $500,000 limitation on recovery from political subdivisions,” he wrote.
The state’s highest court agreed in January to hear the appeal involving the cap that reduced Zauflik’s 2011 jury verdict in her civil suit against Pennsbury School District. The award had been reduced by a county judge who oversaw the case in accordance with the state’s liability cap, and a state appellate court upheld the decision.
Among the issues in Zauflik’s appeal were whether the $500,000 cap on damages is unconstitutional in that it violates equal protection for all citizens and whether the cap infringes on the court’s power to rule on jury verdicts.
The court decision included a detailed history of government immunity in the state and found the cap limit was constitutional and failed to violate equal protection or the separation of powers.
Kline had long contended that Pennsbury could tap a $10 million excess liability policy in place at the time of the accident to cover most of the original verdict. The district argued the policy covered claims that fall outside the parameter of the state cap, such as a federal civil award.