Victims: Penn St. slow on settlements
Nearly three months after Penn State said it wanted to settle ”privately, expeditiously and fairly” with the boys Jerry Sandusky sexually abused, lawyers for the victims from his criminal case and other potential claimants say the school has not followed up with concrete action.
The attorneys told The Associated Press in recent days that they had very limited contact with the university and, if that continues, more lawsuits may follow the four now under way.
”I believe there has been a window of opportunity, which is closing, despite enormous patience by the lawyers who represent the victims,” said Philadelphia attorney Tom Kline, who represents a young man who testified during Sandusky’s criminal trial he was fondled in a school shower in 2001.
Kline and the other lawyers told the AP that they will not wait indefinitely for the university to propose a settlement process stemming from Sandusky’s conviction in June on 45 counts of sexual abuse of 10 boys. The former assistant football coach awaits sentencing and will likely spend the rest of his life behind bars.
Since Sandusky was charged more than 10 months ago, eight legal teams that together represent at least 20 people have surfaced. Already dealing with a $60 million NCAA fine and a tarnished reputation, the school faces potential civil claims that could lead to payouts of millions, even tens of millions, of dollars.
Penn State spokesman Dave La Torre said the school has had ”multiple conversations” with victims’ lawyers, but offered no specifics, either about the process, how much money might be made available or eligibility standards. He calls it the beginning of a complex process.
In one sign of action behind the scenes, the university has consulted with lawyer Ken Feinberg, who ran victim compensation funds for victims of Agent Orange, the Sept. 11 attacks, the Virginia Tech massacre and the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Still, some lawyers say they have heard little or nothing from the university since school President Rodney Erickson announced the night of the Sandusky verdict that the university planned to contact them, in the near future, and invite them to participate in a program ”to facilitate the resolution of claims against the university” by providing ”a forum where the university can privately, expeditiously and fairly address the victims’ concerns and compensate them for claims relating to the university.”
How that would work remains unclear.
”The plaintiffs are not in a position to resolve the cases – that’s Penn State’s job,” said lawyer Matt Casey, whose team represents four Sandusky victims; Sandusky’s son Matt Sandusky; and an unspecified number of other accusers.
”Frankly, we’ve heard a lot of discussion, but no specific action,” Casey said. ”Accordingly, in that posture, the only choice is to proceed with aggressively litigating.”
Feinberg briefly mentioned his discussions with Penn State at the end of his new book, ”Who Gets What: Fair Compensation after Tragedy and Financial Upheaval,” but would only tell the AP he had a brief conversation and that the university officials he spoke with ”fully understand the challenges.”
St. Paul, Minn., attorney Jeff Anderson’s three clients include Travis Weaver, an Ohio man in his 30s who filed the first related lawsuit in November, less than a month after Sandusky was charged.
”At this point in time, there is nothing that I’m aware of that has been substantively done,” Anderson said. ”We’re going to move the litigation forward as soon as we can and as fast as we can.”
Weaver was not among the 10 victims that state prosecutors listed when they charged Sandusky. He went public with his claims during Sandusky’s trial.
For now, Penn State is fighting with its general liability insurer over coverage. The number of claimants could swell further if Penn State makes a public announcement it is seeking victims, outlines who would be eligible and explains what evidence of molestation they will have to produce.
”I don’t have any problem with discussing a system of evaluation of claims, so long as there is a right to go to court,” said Williamsport lawyer Cliff Rieders, who has filed a ”writ” in Philadelphia that initiated a lawsuit without filing a complaint that outlines the allegations. ”I’m not generally in favor of giving up those rights unless there’s some adequate quid pro quo.”
Rieders said his client, who was not among the 10 victims in Sandusky’s criminal case, was sexually abused by Sandusky over ”several different summer seasons.”
The school and its insurer, Blue Bell-based Pennsylvania Manufacturers’ Association Insurance Co., have sued each other over coverage for Sandusky-related claims. The university is currently appealing a judge’s decision to consolidate the cases in Philadelphia. The insurance dispute, along with pending criminal charges against two Penn State administrators, slowed the civil litigation timetable.
Tom Baker, a University of Pennsylvania law professor with expertise on the relationship between liability and insurance, said Penn State doesn’t want the cases to go to trial, but might feel compelled to.
”If the plaintiffs are very unreasonable in the amounts of money they’re demanding, you might be prepared to take that risk,” Baker said. ”Especially if you can do it one case at a time.”
The potential for a drawn-out legal battle doesn’t bother Harrisburg lawyer Ben Andreozzi, whose five clients include one who testified against Sandusky at the criminal trial. None has sued.
”If it’s up to me, I would assume just file the lawsuit, take a bunch of depositions and hear what the jury thinks about it,” Andreozzi said. ”The sky’s the limit on what the recovery could be in this case.”
Penn State did contact him to offer his clients counseling, Andreozzi said.
Both sides will enter any settlement talks with some idea of the size of verdict awards and out-of-court settlements in similar cases, but evaluating the monetary value is a complicated process, and Anderson signaled he was not likely to jump at any offer.
”At this point there’s nothing on the table, there’s nothing off the table,” he said. ”What has to be done first is some measure of discovery and scrutiny, and that is further disclosure and exposure, before there can be closure.”