There are no words to describe the terrible tragedy that has come to light at Penn State University of the course of the last few weeks. Countless lives have been ruined – indeed, we may never know the full scope of the abuse that occurred, or exactly how many young men were abused.
For the University, and those who are alleged to have “looked the other way” when these alleged monstrous acts occurred, there are many consequences which must be faced. In addition to the prospect of living with themselves and their actions, more material consequences will certainly follow.
The University faces extreme damage to its reputation and standing. Moreover, future enrollments, endorsements, and recruiting of all kinds will likely be affected – indeed, one prominent bureau has already threatened to downgrade the University’s credit rating. Many of those involved in the scandal have already lost their jobs, or will do so in the near future.
But the University and those within the institution may also face civil liability. Many experts have already suggested that the University had sufficient warning about Sandusky’s actions, yet failed to act, to create legal liability. That appears to be true according to the Sandusky grand jury report.
The prospect of liability for child sexual abuse is only heightened by the criminal case unfolding against several top figures in the University’s administration. The Pennsylvania Attorney General, Linda Kelly, has brought charges against University Athletic Director Tim Curley and University Vice President for Finance and Business Gary Schultz, including the failure to report child abuse and lying to a grand jury.
According to the grand jury’s report in the criminal case, Curley and Schultz were presented with multiple reports of sexual misconduct by Jerry Sandusky over the course of several years. This misconduct was also reported on at least one occasion to University football coach and community hero Joe Paterno, and to University President Graham Spanier. Both have lost their positions at the University since the allegations came to light.
While the failure to report criminal activity is usually not adequate to trigger civil liability, there are unique factors at play here. Despite an unenforceable University directive to prohibit Sandusky from bringing children onto the University’s campus, there is ample evidence that the University continued to allow Sandusky virtually unlimited access to University facilities, even with children. Sandusky’s charity continued to hold football camps at a University satellite campus, and Sandusky even brought child guests to at least one University football practice.
One potential legal theory at play here is premises liability for sexual abuse – much like a landowner who allows a dangerous condition to continue on his property, the University allowed a dangerous “condition” – the presence of a known pedophile – to continue on its own property. And like the landowner who fails to correct a dangerous physical condition (such as a broken swingset) which presents a known danger to children on the property, the University may face civil liability for failing to take steps to protect future victims from Sandusky.
Much like the civil cases against the various diocese of the Catholic Church, the potential suits against the University and its officials carry with them extensive financial exposure. Nor are these suits merely hypothetical – several major news outlets are now reporting that some victims have retained an attorney and begun planning a civil action.
We can only hope that, whether in the criminal or civil courts, the alleged victims of Jerry Sandusky will find some sense of justice.
If you have any questions about a possible claim for sexual abuse, please give us a call us at 312-527-4500 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org for a complimentary consultation. You can also learn more by following us on Twitter, reviewing our LinkedIn or Avvo.com pages, and by reviewing our website.