Despite apparently good intentions and undoubtedly deep pockets, Penn State University might end up in civil court to compensate victims of Jerry Sandusky's child sex abuse crimes.
But that depends on how victims and their attorneys respond to the university's invitation to participate in a forum facilitating the resolution of civil litigation against the university, said local attorney Dave Andrews.
It's noble that Penn State wants to offer counseling and settle claims, said Andrews, who is not involved in any Penn State-related litigation, but the effort to help the victims can be in conflict with civil litigation defense strategy.
"By saying 'we will settle everything' [and not take it to trial] - that sometimes encourages plaintiff attorneys to prolong litigation in hopes of getting more," Andrews said.
On June 22, the same day Jerry Sandusky was found guilty on 45 of 48 counts, Penn State released a statement outlining its intentions to compensate victims.
"The university wants to provide a forum where the University can privately, expeditiously and fairly address the victims' concerns and compensate them for claims relating to the University," the statement read.
The amount of compensation per victim isn't a figure Andrews attempts to estimate for the university with a $4 billion operating budget and $1.7 billion endowment fund.
"Who knows?" Andrews said. "It can be some very large sums. There are very compelling cases of plaintiffs. They're talking about their lives ruined by what happened."
Altoona attorney Richard Serbin has worked for 150 sex abuse victims and has helped his clients gain millions of dollars in damages, most notably for claims against the Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown.
"Each individual is unique in how they respond to sexual abuse. Some may require lifelong treatment," Serbin said.
What is for certain, Andrews said, is that the victims have the right to take Penn State to court to secure damages if an agreement cannot be reached the way the university has proposed.
"Some victims have already filed [civil suits against Penn State]. So if the cases do not get settled, then it can go in front of a jury," Andrews said. "And Penn State could be talking numerous cases."
At least two civil suits have been filed in Philadelphia against the university by John Doe A and C. Miller, university legal counsel announced during a January board meeting. Neither plaintiff is a victim identified in the grand jury presentments against Sandusky. The allegations against the university include negligence, negligent supervision, premises liability, intentional infliction of emotional distress and conspiracy to endanger children.
During Penn State Board of Trustees meetings in the past year, members have said they expect more civil suits to be filed.
Civil suits are aimed at the university, not individuals, because individuals have fewer financial resources, Serbin said.
A question needs to be answered as to who was responsible for taking appropriate action to prevent the crimes, he said.
If former Athletic Director Tim Curley and former university Vice President Gary Schultz are convicted on charges of failing to report child abuse and perjury, that would help to increase victims' compensation, but a not guilty verdict wouldn't affect civil litigation against the university.
"Even if they are found not guilty, civil lawsuits do not require a burden of proof beyond reasonable doubt," Serbin said.
On Feb. 15, Penn State filed a lawsuit in the Court of Common Pleas of Centre County against its primary general liability insurer, Pennsylvania Manufacturers' Association Insurance Co. to defend the university's rights under its insurance policies. PMA filed a lawsuit Jan. 31 in Philadelphia, asking the court to release it from obligations regarding its duty to defend and pay for a civil lawsuit filed against the university in relation to the Sandusky matter.
The university has declined further comment this week about its plan to compensate the victims and provide counseling for them.
"The Penn State civil case is unusual in the sense that it gained massive publicity," said Serbin, noting that the university will want to put its best face forward.