Pa. school nixes $14M award for teen in bus crash

December 13, 2011 12:15:37 PM PST
A suburban Philadelphia school district said Tuesday that it's legally restricted to pay no more than $500,000 to a former high school student who lost a leg after being struck by a school bus, despite a jury awarding her $14 million in damages.

Ashley Zauflik, 22, of Fairless Hills, spent a month in a medically induced coma and had her leg amputated after the January 2007 crash.

The National Transportation Safety Board found that the driver stepped on the accelerator, not the brake, before crashing into a crowd of students during dismissal at Pennsbury High School. The driver disputed that finding, but the Pennsbury School District admitted liability before trial.

A jury last week awarded $14 million to Zauflik - $11 million for pain and suffering and other non-economic damages and about $3 million for past and future medical expenses - after a four-day civil trial.

The school district is expected to ask a Bucks County judge this week to reduce the award to $500,000, the cap set under a 1980 Pennsylvania law that protects municipalities and school districts.

"The 2007 accident involving Ashley was, without a doubt, tragic," the school district said in a written statement Tuesday. "The ability of the Pennsbury School Board to compensate anyone involved in this unfortunate incident, or any accident, however, is dictated by the state law known as the Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act."

Under that statute, the $500,000 limit applies to all awards stemming from a single incident. If the cap is upheld, Zauflik could be left to share the $500,000 with any others who win damage awards. Seven others have sued over injuries from the crash.

Using school funds "above the statutory limit is illegal," the district's statement said, and each school board member who voted for such a payment could be held liable.

Zauflik's lawyer, Thomas Kline, hopes to negotiate a higher settlement with the district or appeal the cap to the state Supreme Court. The high court last upheld the limit in 1986.

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