The Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently heard arguments on the question of whether school districts should have limited immunity from lawsuits. The case involves a 2007 accident, in which a 17-year-old high school student was hit by a school bus while walking. Her pedestrian accident injuries included severe damage to her pelvic area and leg injuries, which required the partial amputation of her left leg. The police investigation found that the accident was caused by the negligent driver of the bus who mistakenly stepped on the accelerator instead of the brake.
Even though many school districts outsource student busing to private companies, this particular school district had not opted to do so. The victim sued the school district, which owned and operated its own buses. After a jury trial in 2011, a verdict awarded the victim $14 million, mostly as compensation for her pain and suffering.
Had the school buses been owned by a private company, the victim would have likely been able to collect the entire verdict amount. But because the buses were owned by the school district, the judge in the case reduced the award to $500,000, which is the cap placed on damage awards against school districts and municipalities by Pennsylvania’s 1978 Political Subdivisions Tort Claims Act.
In reducing the award, even the judge recognized that the circumstances in the case led to an unfair result, based simply on the fact that the school district handled its own transportation needs.
The victim has appealed the ruling, arguing that the compensation limits violate equal protection guarantees by stripping her of the jury award simply because she was hit by a bus owned by a governmental unit rather than a private company.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decision is highly anticipated by both plaintiff and defense attorneys as well as school districts and municipalities who are affected by the law.