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Sandusky case: As Penn State girds for civil suits, it faces a dilemma

Beyond the criminal charges against Penn State officials as a result of the Sandusky case, a growing number of civil suits are likely. But depending on how the university chooses to defend itself, it risks a PR disaster.

By Staff writer / November 21, 2011



With pedophilia allegations at Penn State already being debated in the streets, the media, and even the football stadium, the university is preparing for the next arena for the scandal: the courtroom.

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Aside from a criminal case that is expected to open next year, a series of civil lawsuits are in the works, not just from the eight alleged victims of former coach Jerry Sandusky, but from many others expected to come forward in coming months.

Sandusky, a former defense coordinator for the university’s football team, was arrested and charged with 40 counts of sexual abuse Nov. 5. He says he is not guilty.

The university is vulnerable because the investigation suggests it knew that Mr. Sandusky was suspected of preying on children and did little to stop it. But Penn State faces a dilemma: some of the options available to it as it considers a legal defense could have negative repercussions on its reputation.

Given the growing number of plaintiffs, the alleged cover-up described in the grand jury report, and possible civil rights violations that might push some lawsuits to federal court, the legal picture for the university is expected to get very messy, very fast.

While the university board of trustees is downplaying the possibility of civil lawsuits, it recently hired Reed Smith, a high profile international law firm with an office in Pittsburgh. Penn State also recently hired Ketchum, an international public relations agency.

The number of Penn State officials indicted by the grand jury investigative report suggests that the pending civil suits will cast a wide net in seeking damages to increase the likelihood of receiving compensation. “A wise plaintiff lawyer will sue everybody,” says Norm Pattis, a criminal defense and federal civil rights lawyer based in New Haven, Conn.

Then there’s the growing number of plaintiffs expected to step forward. The Associated Press reports that there may already be as many as 20 victims. In Pennsylvania, the statute of limitations in child abuse cases was extended in 2007, giving the victim until his or her 50th birthday to file charges.

Because the alleged abuse in the Penn State scandal is reported to have taken place between 1994 and 2009, the possibility of many more potential plaintiffs stepping forward is likely. Not only will more plaintiffs make it more difficult to defend, the defense will have a hard time providing alibis for accusations that took place so far in the past.

And there’s also the potential problem of phantom, or fraudulent, claims.

“Any guy within spitting distance of Penn State … can make a claim against the university,” Mr. Pattis says. “How can you defend yourself against that?”

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