PA Supreme Court Affirms Cap on School & Municipal Liability

school bus

In an important decision for school districts and municipalities, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court this week upheld a cap on damages claimed by plaintiffs injured by public entities. Here, in the case of Zauflik v. Pennsbury School District, the Court invalidated a jury verdict in excess of $14 million dollars, leaving the plaintiffs with a revised award of just $500,000.

In this tragic case, a student was injured severely when a bus owned by the Pennsbury School District, and operated by a District employee, accelerated onto a sidewalk, hitting 20 students. The plaintiff suffered a crushed pelvis and required the amputation of her leg. There was no question that the District was liable for the injury.

The question in this case, though, involved the Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act and its cap on damages that can be awarded. Generally, governmental entities are immune from liability, but the Act includes some exceptions to that general rule. Even when an exception applies, as it did in this case, the law still says that no damages can be awarded against a local government in excess of $500,000 per incident.

Here, the plaintiffs argued that the cap was unconstitutional and that a $14 million award from the jury should stand. The Court affirmed the constitutionality of this limit on liability, however, leaving the plaintiff with the statutory cap.

This is an important decision for local governmental entities, since paying large verdicts in cases like this would divert taxpayer funds from providing other essential services. Governmental entities should be aware, though, that this Act and its cap on damages apply only to personal injury claims and not other types of disputes, like eminent domain actions, employment related claims and breach of contract disputes for example.

As always, governmental entities should contact legal counsel with any questions about possible liability.

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