The Pennsylvania Supreme Court unanimously ruled that it did not have the authority to
waive the damages cap in the state Tort Claims Act, reducing a $14 million jury award to $500,000 for a Bucks County woman who lost her leg after a 2007 school bus accident.
"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. "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."
Ashley 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 driver later said that he had mistakenly hit the accelerator when he meant to use the brake.
The school district admitted liability, but damages were capped by the state law. The district's position was upheld by a trial court and the Superior Court of Pennsylvania before reaching the state Supreme Court.
“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.”
A concurring opinion by Judge Max Baer urged the general assembly to address the possible shortcomings of the Tort Claims Act, but agreed that it was not in the judiciary's power to override the law.