It’s often said that there’s no way to put a dollar value on a human life. In Pennsylvania, though, we’ve long since figured out how to put a value on, say, a human leg. In fact, our state legislature took care of that piece of business way back in 1978, and hasn’t revisited it since.
As a Bucks County schoolgirl discovered the hard way, the value of a human leg can be as little as $500,000.
Ashley Zauflik was a 17-year-old junior at Pennsbury High School on January 12, 2007. That was the day when one of the school district’s bus drivers, preparing to pick up students after dismissal, stepped on his accelerator instead of his brake pedal. His bus jumped a curb, plowed through a fence, and crashed into a group of students leaving the building. Seventeen students were hurt.
Ashley was the most seriously injured. She was dragged underneath the bus, suffering a fractured pelvis and numerous internal injuries. Her left leg was completely crushed by the 18-ton school bus. Doctors eventually had to amputate Ashley’s leg, six inches above the knee.
Following an investigation, the school district conceded that the accident — and Ashley’s resulting pain and suffering — were the fault of its employee.
Under a 1978 state law that protects political subdivisions from tort claims, however, the school district was not only immune from civil liability, but was shielded from having to compensate Ashley for her injuries. Despite the district’s obvious and admitted responsibility in the matter, the law limited their financial damages to $500,000.
In 2011, a jury unanimously awarded Ashley $14 million in damages, but a Bucks County judge later cited the 1978 law in reducing that amount to $500,000. Ashley’s appeals took her to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which in November 2014 upheld the reduction to $500,000. Ashley’s leg is gone forever, but that’s all the money she’ll ever see.
To review: the highest court in the state of Pennsylvania has agreed that Ashley Zauflik’s lifelong use of her leg is worth the same as or less than:
- 30 seconds of television advertising time on “Sunday Night Football” ($627,300; source)
- An average single family home in Newtown, Bucks County, Pa. ($509,560; source)
- The minimum salary due to any Major League Baseball player for a single season ($500,000; source)
Under this law, a town whose snow plow accidentally strikes and kills your child while they’re toting their toboggan to the local sledding hill can wash its hands of responsibility for little more than the cost of a minor increase in the local property tax rate. It wouldn’t matter if the plow driver had been chugging Jack Daniels at the wheel. $500,000. That’s the law. End of discussion.
If you find this as appalling as we do, we hope you’ll take a few minutes to contact your state legislator and demand change.
Tell them it’s time to update the damages cap on the Political Subdivisions Tort Claims Act of 1978, which unjustly protects school districts and municipalities from the consequences of their harmful actions.
If you’re not sure who represents you in the Pennsylvania General Assembly, use this web page to learn their name and contact information.
It’s too late to help Ashley. But it’s only a matter of time before another Pennsylvania school district or municipality hides behind this law to protect itself from the actions of its personnel.
$500,000 wasn’t enough in 1978. In 2014, it’s unconscionable.