A Hollow Jury Verdict

In 2007, Ashley Zauflik was a student at Pennsbury School District located in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, which is north of Philadelphia. Ashley was one of the victims of a school bus accident involving a school bus owned and operated by an employee of the Pennsbury School District. The school bus accelerated out of control and was driven up onto a sidewalk where 20 students were struck by the bus.

Rachel suffered permanent injuries, including a crushed pelvis and her left leg was injured so badly that it had to be amputated above the knee. Her past medical expenses totalled $338,500 and future medical expenses are estimated to be $2.59 million. In 2011, after a trial that lasted 4 days, a jury returned a verdict of $14 million in Rachel's favor. The story does not end here.

The Pennsbury School District had purchased insurance providing coverage for $11 million but maintained that its exposure for liability was limited to $500,000. However, even with the insurance coverage which was purchased, the School District's limited exposure to a damage award arises from the Pennsylvania law known as the Pennsylvania Tort Claims Act and that Act protects local governmental units from paying more than the statutory limitation of $500,000 of damages. If this case would have been brought against a private individual, this limitation would not apply.

After the jury verdict in 2011, the case was appealed to the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania. The main thrust of the argument is that the cap on damages is unconstitutional. The Commonwealth Court affirmed the trial Court and upheld the reduction in the verdict due to the cap. After another appeal which was accepted by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, the Pennsylvania's high court decision was handed down on November 19, 2014. Since the Pennsylvania legislature enacted the law that allows local governmental units to enjoy this immunity, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court upheld the lower court's decision and the damage cap was again upheld.

The Supreme Court recognized the tragic facts of this case but left the issue to be changed only if the Pennsylvania legislature changes the current law. Even if that happens, Ashley Zauflik won't have any further recourse.

This story is told because so many times the media concentrates on informing the public about people who file what the media terms "frivolous" lawsuits. The outcome of this case was not highly publicized. This case demonstrates that there are many times that people with serious and permanent injuries have no way of collecting for the damages they have suffered. Many times, there is not sufficient insurance coverage in place to pay for a loss. Other times, governmental immunity plays a significant role in limiting the recourse available to injured people. The moral of the story is that many times seriously injured people go without a recovery they are entitled to due to circumstances beyond of their control. In my experience, this type of tragic story is much more common than the examples that the media like to portray as "frivolous".

Zauflik v. Pennsburgh School District, 2014 WL 6474931 (Pa. 2014)

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