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Lawsuit Against School Could Challenge Pennsylvania Damages Cap

In January 2007, a tragic accident involving a school bus at a suburban Philadelphia school left a young woman in a medically induced coma and a leg amputation. The accident occurred when a bus crashed into a group of students that had just been let out of Pennsbury High School.

According to an investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board, the bus driver stepped on the accelerator instead of the brake, causing the bus to lunge into the students, injuring several.

The young woman sued the school district in a personal injury lawsuit and after a four-day trial earlier this month, a jury awarded her $14 million in damages. The damage award consisted of about $3 million for past and future medical costs and $11 million for pain and suffering and other punitive damages.

Shortly after the jury award was announced, the school district said in a statement that it is only liable to pay $500,000 under a state law known as the Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act.

The law was set in 1980 and caps civil damage awards against municipalities and school districts at $500,000 in lawsuits arising out of a single incident. Going “above the statutory limit is illegal,” the school board said in its statement.

The problem with laws like this that when catastrophic accidents leave many people injured, and some more severely than others, the group of plaintiffs are required to share the capped damage award.

If the law is applied in this case, the young woman could be required to share the $500,000 with the seven other students who have filed civil lawsuits over injuries sustained in the crash. Of course, the young woman’s medical costs alone were determined to be around $3 million by the jury.

The young woman’s personal injury lawyer told reporters that they plan to either negotiate a higher settlement with the school district or appeal the $500,000 cap to the state Supreme Court, which last took up the issue in 1986.

No doubt, this will be an interesting and important case to follow.

Source: The Washington Post, “Pa. school district disagrees with $14M award for 2007 school bus crash that cost teen her leg,” Dec. 13, 2011