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School bus wreck victim challenges damages cap
Question of the Day
PHILADELPHIA (AP) - A young woman who lost a leg when she was struck by a runaway school bus will ask Pennsylvania’s high court Tuesday to overturn a half-million-dollar cap on damages involving public agencies.
Ashley Zauflik’s lawyer said she deserves the full $14 million jury award that followed the 2007 accident at Pennsbury High School in Bucks County. Instead, the trial judge reluctantly cut the award to the $500,000 state tort limit, even though the Pennsbury School District had $11 million of insurance coverage.
“The reduction was unconstitutional because it deprived her of the right to a jury trial,” lawyer Thomas R. Kline said Monday.
The Tort Claims Act generally grants immunity to cities, school districts and other government agencies, but allows damages of up to $500,000 for motor vehicle accidents and other exceptions.
Lawyer Stephen Cozen, representing the Pennsbury School District, said the law is designed to protect public funds. The cities of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, along with eight other public agencies, have urged the court in amicus briefs to uphold the cap.
“These folks have very clearly said if they didn’t have the protection of this act, and had to face uncapped tort liabilities, their very existence would be threatened,” Cozen said.
He believes the state legislature would revise the law to eliminate the exceptions if Kline prevails. The state Supreme Court has not reviewed the cap since 1986, when it was upheld.
“Nobody in the future would be able to sue any of these folks,” Cozen said. “It might be great for this plaintiff, but it would stink for everybody else.”
The National Transportation Safety Board found that the Pennsbury driver stepped on the accelerator, not the brake, before crashing into a crowd of about 20 students. The driver disputed that finding, but the school district admitted liability before trial.
Zauflik, then a 17-year-old junior, was the most seriously injured. She was dragged under a tire, crushing her leg and hip. Doctors amputated 6 inches above her left knee. She also sued several other parties, and received an undisclosed settlement from the bus manufacturer and related companies.
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