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Pennsbury: Illegal to pay bus-crash victim more than $500,000

District denies withholding information about $10 million insurance policy.

It would be illegal for Pennsbury School District to pay a former student who lost a leg in a bus crash more than the $500,000 dictated by state law, the district said Tuesday.

Payment of last week's $14 million jury award to Ashley Zauflik will be determined by the courts and insurance companies, the district said in a press release.

The release was a response to weekend reports that the district had a $10 million excess liability policy for the 2006-07 school year, when an out-of control district bus ran over Zauflik and hit about 15 other students outside Pennsbury High School.

The district's lawyer, David Cohen, notified the Fairless Hills woman's law firm on Friday — four days after the verdict — that he learned about the $10 million policy Thursday at a school board executive session closed to the public.

"At all times throughout this case, the school district has acted in a forthright manner and has cooperated with all parties throughout the litigation process," the district said in its release. "No information was ever intentionally withheld."

School districts routinely buy excess liability coverage "to protect assets and the taxpayers, Superintendent Kevin McHugh said Monday.

The $10 million policy cost $41,814, according to minutes of the June 15, 2006 school board meeting when it was approved unanimously. Only one member, Howard Goldberg, still serves on the board.

It was one of Pennsbury's insurance companies that hired Cohen to represent the district in this case. The district was obligated to inform Cohen and the Zauflik family of all insurance coverages in force at the time of the accident, Zauflik's lawyer, Thomas Kline, said Saturday.
Cohen has declined to comment on the case during and since the four-day civil trial in Bucks County Court.

The district's insurance policies are public information available through a Right-To-Know request, school board Vice President Simon Campbell said Monday in an e-mail. He will be filing such requests to all 13 districts in the county and posting the policies on his website, he said.

After the verdict by eight women and four men, Kline called on Pennsbury to "come out of hiding" and pay Zauflik, now 21, an amount between the $14 million jury award than the $500,000 dictated by the state cap.

But using school funds "above the statutory limit is illegal," the district said, and each school board member who voted for such a payment could be held liable. A $500,000 payment would be covered by the district's $1 million motor-vehicle insurance coverage, the release said.

The jury awarded Zauflik $2.9 million for past and future medical bills and $11.1 million for pain, suffering and disfigurement. She was hospitalized for 40 days immediately after the Jan. 12, 2007 accident, kept in a medically induced coma much of that time because of the pain from her crushed pelvis and other injuries. Her left leg was amputated six inches above the knee.

Zauflik has been in pain every day since the accident, she testified. To move on, she wants to be outfitted with a high-tech artificial leg that will cost $66,000, or $2 million for the rest of her life, her life-care planner testified. The district's expert agreed with the choice of prosthesis and estimated the lifetime cost of that and supplementary devices at $1.5 million.

In his closing arguments, Cohen told the jurors to award the $1.5 million if they thought Zauflik would wear the prosthesis. Instead, the jurors virtually matched the $2.9 million in total medical costs projected by the life-care planner.

The district is expected to appeal the verdict to Judge Robert Mellon by the Thursday deadline, and Mellon is expected to adjust it to conform to the $500,000 state cap.

The verdict would then be appealed to Superior Court and the state Supreme Court, Kline said during the trial. To collect damages, Zauflik would have to challenge the constitutionality of the cap, which was adopted by the state legislature in 1980 and narrowly upheld by the state Supreme Court in 1986, he said.

The cap is not designed to protect insurance companies, only school districts and municipalities, Kline said after learning about the $10 million policy.

"Insurance funds are potentially available to any claimant," the district said. "As the policy holder, the school district cannot dictate expenditure of insurance funds. In this case, the court has yet to determine the final amount of the award."

The district said it could not comment further.