Commonwealth Court panel affirms reduction of $14 million injury verdict to half-million due to damages cap

By Jon Campisi | Jul 8, 2013

In a closely watched case around the Philadelphia region, a state appellate court panel

recently affirmed a Bucks County Court judge’s decision to scrap a $14 million verdict in a case involving a teenage girl who lost her leg following a school bus accident because the award far exceeded a state law cap of damages in personal injury cases against school districts and municipalities.

In a July 3 ruling, the Commonwealth Court panel affirmed a Bucks County Common Pleas Court order molding the $14,036,263.39 jury verdict to $500,000 pursuant to Pennsylvania’s Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act, which limits recovery of damages against the commonwealth’s political subdivisions to a half-million dollars.

The case, which had been reported on frequently by local media, involved Ashley Zauflik, who was a 17-year-old student at the Pennsbury School District in Bucks County back in 2007 when she was run over by a school bus in a horrific accident.

Following a 2011 civil trial, jurors issued their multi-million-dollar award in Zauflik’s favor, but Bucks County Common Pleas Court Judge Robert Mellon reduced the damages to $500,000 due to the state law that caps liability in injury cases against localities and school districts.

In its ruling, the Commonwealth Court panel acknowledged the tragic circumstances of the case, but stated that it had no choice but to affirm the trial court’s ruling because it was constrained by the law and court precedence.

“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 statutory cap of the Tort Claims Act multiple times,” the Commonwealth Court ruling states. “It is the role of the General Assembly, not this Court, to make the difficult policy decisions and enact them into law if such decisions receive the support of the necessary majority.”

In the end, the appellate judges affirmed the molding of the $14 million-plus jury verdict to $500,000, and added $2,661.63 in delay damages in addition to sanctioning the school district $5,000 for not timely disclosing the existence of an excess insurance policy at the time of the school bus accident.

The decision was written by Commonwealth Court Judge Renee Cohn Jubelirer.

Also participating in the decision were President Judge Dan Pellegrini and Senior Judge Rochelle S. Friedman.

Friedman filed a dissenting opinion in which she stated her belief that the statutory cap is unconstitutional because it violates Zaufik’s right to receive the jury’s award.

Friedman noted that while other school districts contract busing services out to third parties, the Pennsburg School District provides its own transportation for students.

“While there is no statutory prohibition against Pennsbury’s conduct, had transportation been provided by a private transportation company, Zauflik would have been entitled to receive the full benefit of the jury’s award of over $14,000,000,” Friedman wrote. “Surely the legislature can devise legislation that more fairly and adequately addresses this gross disparity.”

Friedman wrote that had such legislation been in effect prior to Zauflik’s injury, the girl would have been able to collect the full award.

Friedman also wrote that she was “troubled by the apparent constitutional impairment in disregarding the jury’s award in this case.”

By imposing a statutory cap, the dissenting judge wrote, the Pennsylvania General Assembly has infringed on the rights of citizens guaranteed under the state constitution.

“Because I believe that the $500,000 cap violates Zauflik’s right to receive the jury’s award, I would conclude that the statutory cap is unconstitutional as applied,” Friedman wrote. “For this reason, I dissent.”

Attorney Tom Kline, of the Philadelphia firm Kline & Spector, who represented the plaintiff, told the Philadelphia Inquirer late last week that the damages cap is a “manifest injustice.

The paper quoted Kline as saying that he planned to appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which he hopes will “grant review to look carefully again at the unfair limitation on damages.”

Past news reports said that Zauflik was one of about 20 students who were struck by an out-of-control bus outside of the high school in January 2007.

The Inquirer reported that she had to be placed in a medically induced coma for days following the accident, and that she was hospitalized for a month, during which she reportedly underwent more than 10 surgeries.

The driver who was operating the bus at the time maintained that the vehicle experienced a malfunction at the time of the tragic accident.

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