As Ashley Zauflik, 17-year-old high school junior, was standing outside her school waiting for the bus with a group of other students, a school bus driven by John McCleary jumped the curb and struck Zauflik. The bus continued for another quarter-mile before crashing into a retaining wall.
Zauflik sustained severe crush injuries to her left leg, pelvic fractures, and internal organ damage and bleeding. She was placed in a medically induced coma for a month, and her left leg required amputation above the knee. She was fitted with a prosthetic leg, but because of her discomfort using the prosthetic and her inability to afford a more advanced one, she has relied on crutches and a wheelchair.
A local police investigation concluded that the bus driver, who was not driving his usual bus but a replacement vehicle on the day of the incident, mistakenly stepped on the accelerator instead of the brake. The National Transportation Safety Board found that although the bus did not have any major mechanical problems, its brakes were not properly adjusted.
Zauflik sued the school district, alleging that its driver was negligent in stepping on the gas pedal instead of the brake.
Zauflik’s recoverable past medical expenses totaled about $338,600. The plaintiff presented expert testimony that her future medical expenses will total about $2.6 million.
The school district offered to settle Zauflik’s claim and those of eight other students injured in the incident for a total of $500,000, citing a Pennsylvania statute that caps damages against municipalities at $500,000 for a single incident. Zauflik rejected the offer.
The school district later admitted liability, and the case proceeded to trial on damages.
The defense contended that plaintiff’s experts overstated her future economic needs and presented a prosthetic-needs plan costing approximately $1.5 million. The defense also claimed that Zauflik was not conscious during much of the time that she was hospitalized and therefore should not be compensated for noneconomic damages during that time period.
The jury awarded $14 million, including $11 million for past and future pain and suffering and $3 million for past and future medical expenses.
The school district moved to have the award reduced in accordance with the $500,000 cap. The plaintiff has opposed the motion, arguing that the cap violates federal and state equal protection and due process rights and the state constitutional prohibition on limiting compensatory damages. The plaintiff relies in part on the fact that the school district purchased $11 million in liability insurance, notwithstanding the cap. The plaintiff also argues that the cap does not prevent the school district from paying a higher amount.
Citation: Zauflik v. Pennsbury Sch. Dist., No. 2007-09693 (Pa., Bucks Co. Com. Pleas Dec. 5, 2011).
Plaintiff counsel: AAJ members Thomas R. Kline and David J. Caputo, both of Philadelphia, and AAJ member William L. Goldman, Jr., Doylestown, Pa.