Pennsylvania Supreme Court Rejects Challenge to Statutory Limit on Damages Recoverable Against Local Government Agencies

In Zauflik v. Pennsbury School District, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court rejected a challenge to the damages cap of $500,000 applicable to claims against local government agencies under the Tort Claims Act, 42 Pa. C.S. §§ 8501-8564.  The case involved a school student who suffered severe and permanent injuries when she was struck by a school bus that had accelerated out of control.  The school bus was owned and operated by the Pennsbury School District – and not by a private entity. Click here to read the Majority and Concurring Opinions (in one document).

At the time of the accident, the school district had $11 million in liability and excess insurance coverage but maintained that its liability was limited to the statutory cap of $500,000 set forth in the Tort Claims Act.  Following a jury trial on damages, the plaintiff was awarded more than $14 million.  Pennsbury filed a post-trial motion to mold the verdict, which plaintiff opposed.  The trial court upheld the damages cap, as did the Commonwealth Court.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court likewise upheld the damages cap.  Citing well established precedent, the Court held that the cap:

1) Did not violate equal protection principles, despite its reducing the verdict in this case by 96%, and despite the fact that the plaintiff would have been entitled to the full verdict if the defendant had been a private entity;

2) Did not violate equal protection principles despite the fact that the defendant had insurance coverage in excess of the statutory limit;

3) Did not violate the plaintiff’s right to a jury trial because it effectively “eviscerated” the jury verdict;

4) Did not infringe on judicial power because it did not usurp the judiciary’s exclusive and inherent power to determine remittitur requests;

5) Did not violate the constitutional open court and/or liability limitations provisions set forth in the Pennsylvania constitution.