In October 2017, a Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) bus struck Hayley Freilich as she was walking within the crosswalk at the intersection of Broad Street and Vine Street in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The collision would cause Freilich to suffer permanent bodily injuries necessitating extensive medical treatment. Nearly five year after the collision and subsequent lawsuit filed against SEPTA, Freilich’s cause of action continues on as her originally stipulated damages of approximately $7 million dollars has been reduced to a mere $250,000 despite SEPTA’s admission of negligence.
The original dispute in Freilich v. Se. Pa. Transp. Auth. concerned whether or not SEPTA was negligent in causing Freilich’s injuries. In a stipulated verdict, the parties reached an agreement whereby SEPTA admitted that its driver was negligent in causing Plaintiff’s injuries and the parties stipulated to award Freilich $7,000,000.
However, following the award, SEPTA filed a post-trial motion to mold the verdict, citing the Sovereign Immunity Act (hereafter “the Act”). The Act provides for limitations on liability for “Commonwealth parties” when those parties have acted in a negligent manner. Notably, the Act provides that liability may be imposed on the Commonwealth and the defense of sovereign immunity is inapplicable to claims for damages caused by:
The operation of any motor vehicle in the possession or control of a Commonwealth party. As used in this paragraph, motor vehicle’ means any vehicle which is self-propelled and any attachment thereto, including vehicles operated by rail, through water or in the air.
42 Pa. C.S.A. § 8522(b)(1)
The Act further provides that while liability may be imposed on the Commonwealth for the negligence of one of its motor vehicle operators, a plaintiff’s recovery against that Commonwealth party will be limited. 42 Pa. C.S.A. § 8528(b) specifically mandates that “damages arising from the same cause of action or transaction or occurrence or series of causes of action or transactions or occurrences shall not exceed $ 250,000 in favor of any plaintiff or $ 1,000,000 in the aggregate.” Id.
With this statutory precedent governing in Pennsylvania, in March of 2022, Judge Crumlish, the post-trial motion judge, granted SEPTA’s motion to mold the verdict and reduced Freilich’s damages to $250,000 in accordance with 42 Pa. C.S.A. § 8528(b). Despite agreeing that the reduction was a “profound economic inequality,” Judge Crumlish explained he had a “prescribed role” based on the Act and was without judicial discretion. He noted that unless and until the Pennsylvania Supreme Court accepted the case and reached a different conclusion, he was bound by precedent.
It has long been argued that Pennsylvania’s statutory damages cap for Commonwealth parties is too low and does not provide adequate redress for the negligence of Commonwealth actors. In fact, in Zauflik v. Pennsbury School District, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court invited the State legislature to review the Act and consider raising the statutory limits on damages. Again, in 2019, the Supreme Court extended this invitation following its decision in Grove v. Port Authority of Allegheny County. There, the Court recognized the difficulties presented by the $250,000 damages limit and its tendency to be inequitable and bordering on unconstitutional in some cases where damages should vastly exceed $250,000.
In an effort to increase the $250,000 limit, Freilich’s counsel sought certiorari in 2018 from the State Supreme Court, but the Court declined to grant the petition. Freilich’s counsel recently appealed to the State Supreme Court aiming to increase the current limit prescribed for all cases of this nature. Freilich’s counsel feels as though her case is the exact situation that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in Grove feared and that her Constitutional rights have been violated leaving her without proper redress in the wake of steep medical bills and attorneys fees. For now, Freilich and all similarly situated plaintiffs can only wait patiently for the State legislature to accept the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s invitation to act and raise the limit of statutory damages.