Ever since a Pennsbury school bus ran over 17-year-old Ashley Zauflik nearly five years ago, costing her her left leg, the school district has stood behind a state law that limits its liability to $500,000.
But last week, days after a Bucks County jury awarded the Fairless Hills woman $14 million for her medical costs, pain, and suffering, the district revealed that it has insurance that could cover a possible $13 million.
The lawyers for neither side knew about a "$10 million umbrella policy," according to a letter from David S. Cohen, the lawyer who handled the case for Pennsbury, to the law firm Zauflik hired.
All they knew was that the district had a $1 million policy and went to trial because it would not offer more than $500,000, Zauflik's lead lawyer, Thomas Kline, said Saturday.
"This is a staggering development," Kline wrote Friday in an e-mail. "I intend to be back before Judge [Robert] Mellon in short order and get to the bottom of this failure to turn over critical information, which [was] hidden from our view and the public view while known to the school board and Pennsbury School District officials."
Kline said he received the letter Friday from Cohen after an executive session of the school board Thursday night. That's when the district's business administrator told the board, including four newly elected members, about the policies, Cohen said.
"I was able to confirm that there is an excess-liability policy with limits of insurance of $10 million for the Pennsbury School District for the policy period of July 1, 2006, to July 1, 2007, with Old Republic Insurance Company," Cohen wrote. "I have been informed that the excess carrier is on notice."
On Jan. 12, 2007, Zauflik and about 16 other students were standing outside Pennsbury High School, waiting for their ride home, when an out-of-control school bus hit them. Zauflik, a junior, suffered the most serious injuries, requiring 11 operations, including amputation of her leg.
The accident was caused when the bus driver mistakenly stepped on the gas pedal instead of the brake, Falls Township police and the National Transportation Safety Board determined. The district, however, did not stipulate liability for the crash until the day before jury selection for Zauflik's civil case.
During the four-day trial in Doylestown, Zauflik, now 21, and her parents talked publicly about their ordeal for the first time.
Within hours of the accident, Zauflik was placed in a medically induced coma because of the pain from her crushed pelvis and other injuries. Days later, doctors at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania gave her parents a choice, "Take her leg off, or she would die," Marguerite Zauflik testified.
Ashley Zauflik has felt pain every day since she came out of the coma, in all parts of her body, she testified. Mentally, she considers herself "disfigured. I'm not the same anymore. I have body issues I never had in high school. I have crutches."
After four days of testimony and lawyers' arguments, the jury awarded Zauflik $2.9 million for past and future medical costs and $11.1 million for pain, suffering, and disfigurement.
Kline also appealed to the district "to do what is right and just and fair" and pay Zauflik an amount closer to the jury's award, which would cover the cost of a high-tech prosthesis for the rest of her life.
He was not told that the district had the $13 million in policies.
"In a high-profile case like this, this needs to be investigated - who knew about the policy, when they knew it, and why the information was not turned over to their lawyer, and, in turn, to Ashley Zauflik and her lawyers," Kline said.
District officials could not be reached to comment.
Cohen, hired by one of Pennsbury's insurance companies to represent the district, could not be reached for comment. Two school board members declined to commment.