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Pa. Supreme Court Reduces Jury Award in School Bus Accident

Pennsylvania's highest court has upheld two lower courts that drastically reduced the damages awarded to a student who lost a leg and suffered other injuries when she was struck by a school bus.

The state Supreme Court ruled 6-0 that a $14 million jury award to Ashley Zauflik for medical expenses and compensation for past and future pain and suffering had to be reduced to $500,000—the state law limit on damages that may be recovered from a local government agency under Pennsylvania's Tort Claims Act.

Zauflik suffered a crushed pelvis and an amputation of her left leg above the knee in 2007 when a bus driven by an employee of the Pennsbury school district accelerated out of control and drove onto a sidewalk, striking 20 students. The school district admitted liability, but said damages were capped by the state law. 

While a jury awarded Zauflik about $3 million for medical expenses and $11 million for pain and suffering, the trial judge held that state court precedents required that the jury award be reduced to fit the statutory cap. A midlevel state appellate court agreed, and in its Nov. 19 decision in Zauflik v. Pennsbury School District, the state supreme court also held that the limit applies.

"The facts here are tragic, involving a school student who suffered grievous injuries caused by the uncontested negligence of the school district's employee," Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille wrote for the court. "But ... the conclusion that the General Assembly is in the better position than this court to address the complicated public policy questions raised by the larger controversy has substantial force."

Lawyers for Zauflik argued that the result violated equal-protection principles under the state constitution because, among other reasons, the student would have recovered the full damages award if the schoolbus had been operated by a private company. They also argued that the district was well-insured and that full liability for "torts" promotes accountability and accident prevention.

The state high court rejected the arguments. It noted that Zauflik "suffered a catastrophic injury" and merely wants the school district "to take responsibility and make her whole."

"This is a simply-stated but powerful position," Chief Justice Castille wrote. "On the other hand, local agencies and municipalities have very real concerns about their ability to preserve their financial stability so that they may continue to serve the public and provide critical services to their citizens, especially their poorest residents. That unpredictable and catastrophic losses can wreak financial havoc is another simply-stated but powerful argument."

Justice Max Baer wrote a concurrence, joined by two other justices, calling on the state legislature to increase the statutory cap on damages that can be recovered from school districts and other local governments.

(Hat Tip to How Appealing for this decision.)

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