Top Plaintiff's Attorney in Child Sexual Abuse Cases Talks Penn State, Paterno
It's important to note that civil cases exist independent of criminal proceedings. In criminal proceedings defendants face jail time. In civil proceedings monetary damages are assesed rather than guilt or innocence.
Anderson, who is a licensed attorney in Pennsylvania and has litigated multiple child sexual abuses cases there, said that in many ways Penn State is in an even more precarious position than the Catholic churches found themselves in. Churches had issues of condifidentiality that helped to protect the statements and actions of priests. Since Penn State is an educational institution, Anderson said the university faced a daunting legal battle. "Educators are by law required to report any suspicious activity to law enforcement," Anderson said. "If they don't report these issues to law enforcement, then they violate the law." That's because Anderson said that eductators have "an even higher legal duty to protect than clergy do."
Would there be any tort immunity provided because Penn State is a state institution?
Anderson says there will be no immunity. According to the attorney, Penn State is liable above and beyond any tort immunity statutes because the administrators at the school were guilty of "willful indifference and reckless conduct that violated the civil rights of the children." In cases such as these, Anderson said, Penn State had an obligation to protect the children and notify law enforcement if the children were not protected. Penn State did neither. As a result of what Anderson termed "a very serious cover-up," Anderson believes, "Punitive damages will also enter the conversation when a jury begins to deliberate."
Punitive damages exist as a matter of public policy. Jurors who believe that an action is so contrary to the public goodwill that it is indefensible are permitted to add to any actual damages that exist in order to send a message to others of what will not be tolerated.
Asked how much a civil lawsuit might cost Penn State, Anderson said, "It's premature to say exactly how much money that would be, but the university is heavily exposed."
When asked if he believed Penn State coach Joe Paterno would be named as a defendant in any civil lawsuit, Anderson tiptoed around the issue. "That remains to be seen," he said, "For now we have to wait on more details from our investigation."
Asked about any statute of limitations issues for the victims, now much older than when these alleged crimes occurred, Anderson said, "That's a complex issue. There's no clear answer." That's becaue Pennsylvania law typically call for statutes of limitations to end two-three years after a minor reaches the age of majority. Since some of the plaintiffs in this case might be over the age of 30 now, it could be complicated to include some of these plaintiffs. Even still, Anderson believes, "In cases such as these where there has been fraud or a cover-up, courts will have to decide what's appropriate."
What's becoming increasingly clear is that Penn State's legal morass will be pending for the next five years or more. And, depending on the number of plaintiffs and whether punitive damages are applied, we could be talking about damages running into the the hundreds of millions of dollars.
"I don't believe," said Anderson, "that jurors will look too kindly upon the actions of Penn State administrators."