How much money will it take to cover Ashley Zauflik’s medical bills, plus the pain and suffering from the bus accident that crushed her outside Pennsbury High School in 2007, resulting in the amputation of her left leg?
That’s what a Bucks County jury of eight women and four men started deciding Monday afternoon, after hearing three-and-a-half days of testimony, instructions and closing arguments.
“The non-economic damages are by far the more significant damages,” the 21-year-old woman’s lawyer, Thomas Kline said in his closing, referring to pain and suffering, embarrassment and humiliation, loss of enjoyment of life, and disfigurement.
“You are the collective conscience of the community,” he said. “Pennsbury was in the transportation business, just as Trailways and Greyhound bus companies are.”
But Pennsbury is different, because it is covered by a state law that caps general liability for school districts and municipalities at $500,000. That’s the total amount of the district’s offer to Zauflik and the seven other students who suffered less serious injuries in the accident, which was caused by the Pennsbury driver mistakenly stepping on the gas pedal instead of the brake.
Because of the cap, the case probably will end up in state Supreme Court regardless of this jury’s finding, Kline has said.
Pennsbury’s lawyer, David Cohen, told the jurors, “You must put sympathy aside and award reasonable damages.” If they believe Zauflik will wear the prosthesis that experts for both sides recommend, the jurors should award her $1.5 million to cover that cost for the rest of her life, Cohen said.
A life-care planner testifying for Zauflik last week put that cost at $2 million, of the projected $2.6 million in medical costs for Zauflik to age 78, her life expectancy.
Both sides have agreed that $338,580 in medicals bills to date should be paid.
That leaves the jury with putting dollar amounts on the young woman’s pain and suffering.
“Assessing pain is hard,” Kline said. “A 20,000-pound school bus ran over her … crushing her while conscious, while alive. You have to put a value on things no one would volunteer for.”
Though neither lawyer was allowed to suggest such a price tag, Kline reminded the jury of the mental anguish Zauflik has suffered: Asking in the school yard whether she was going to die, asking hours after the accident whether she would walk again, not believing her amputation was real, and suffering a breakdown and depression.
“See, then, her pretty smile – see what’s there,” Kline said. “And ask, 'What it really would cost us to be Ashley.' ”