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On Friday, it was reported that a Nevada woman has sued for “failing to disclose dangers of online dating.”

Mary Kay Beckman’s experience was certainly traumatic: she alleges she met Wade Ridley through the site and dated him for a mere eight days. After a couple of harassing text messages, he disappeared for four months then surprised her in her garage, stabbing her repeatedly, stomping on her, and leaving her for dead. She has since had three brain surgeries, as well as “extensive psychological counseling, dental care to repair her jaw, treatment with eye and ear specialists to preserve her sight and hearing, and continued physical therapy.” Ridley was subsequently charged with the murder of another woman. He killed himself in prison.

Beckman is certainly a sympathetic plaintiff, and her tragic case of domestic violence is another reminder of why the Violence Against Women Act should be reauthorized. Tort law, however, is not about sympathy, but rather responsibility. In this case, we return to a basic question of tort law: when do we hold a person or company responsible for the criminal actions of another?

I’ve written about this issue several times before, exploring whether Jerry Sandusky’s abuse victims can sue Penn State, whether Jaycee Dugard can sue over negligent parole supervision, whether Yale should be liable for Annie Le’s death, and whether Monsignor Lynn had a duty to report child abuse by priests. It’s certainly not a common legal issue, but it resurfaces regularly; two weeks ago, the widow of a man killed in the Aurora theater shooting sued James Holmes’ psychiatrist.

The key legal word here is “duty.” Did have any legal duties to Beckman, and, if so, what were those duties? Here’s the complaint. Putting off the other details for a moment, let’s focus on its claims about a legal duty: 
Continue Reading Can Be Sued For Setting A Woman Up With A Murderer?

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My children are young enough that Elmo’s voice still carries considerable weight in our home, and so I was disheartened to hear last week’s allegations that Kevin Clash, Elmo’s creator and voice, had a sexual relationship with a teenager. The alleged victim recanted — perhaps in exchange for a settlement, the reports I’ve seen have been unclear — but the issue resurfaced yesterday with the filing of a lawsuit against Kevin Clash in New York by a second alleged victim. The New York Times has a copy of the complaint; the new alleged victim, now 24 years old, claims Clash trolled sex chat lines for teenagers, found the victim, and then engaged in a sexual relationship with him while he was only 15 years old.

I, of course, don’t know if the allegations are true or not, but I do know that the case has a big problem in terms of whether it’s likely to succeed: the statute of limitations in New York has already expired for all of the usual claims alleged in sexual abuse cases. Apparently in recognition of that, his lawyers have not raised any of the typical state tort law sexual abuse claims — for example, assault and intentional infliction of emotional distress — but have instead filed for damages under a federal criminal statute most commonly used for child pornography victims. More on that in a moment.

As I discussed back when Jerry Sandusky was indicted, it is common — and understandable — for childhood sexual abuse victims to only be able to come forward many years after the abuse occurred, and thus often after the statute of limitations has run. In most states, including New York, the statute of limitations for tort claims is “tolled” (i.e., the clock doesn’t start running) until the victim turns 18 years old, but thereafter the victim only has a few years in which to file their civil claim. Few people turn 18 and suddenly come to terms with a traumatic event — the first few years in adulthood often isn’t enough time for a victim to process what has happened, and many victims repress memories about the assaults until their 30s, sometimes even later — and thus many victims never really have a chance to prove their case in court.

New York’s general statute of limitations for personal injury cases is three years, and New York law has not been kind to sexual abuse victims who failed to file a lawsuit within three years of their 18th birthday. In Zumpano v. Quinn, 6 N.Y.3d 666 (2006), former parishioners of two Catholic dioceses claimed they were sexually abused by priests but didn’t file a lawsuit until more than 20 years after they reached adulthood. The New York Court of Appeals ruled that the abuse was sufficient to trigger the statute of limitations for claims against both the priests and the dioceses that employed them, and so the statute ran three years after they turned 18 years old.

That’s the rule in the majority of states: the statute of limitations for childhood sexual abuse cases begins running right when the victim turns 18 years old. There are some exceptions — like the discovery rule, or tolling for fraudulent concealment — but they’re usually quite limited, and they’re often only applicable to the claims against the abuser’s employer. Earlier this year, for example, in the Poly Prep School Abuse case, a federal judge in New York allowed plaintiffs to move forward on their negligence and other claims related to abuse, on the theory that the school had allegedly “fraudulently concealed” their awareness of the abuser’s danger to the children. (Here’s the court order, which is a must-read for anyone interested in statute of limitations issues in sexual abuse cases, and here’s a New York Times story on the order.)

But I don’t see how Clash’s alleged victim could apply any of that court’s reasoning, which rests on the theory that the victim may not have had access to evidence showing the liability of the abuser’s employer, to his case; indeed, it seems his lawyers already concluded that his state tort claims were long gone, and so didn’t even attempt to allege any of the normal claims relating to sexual abuse. Instead, the alleged victim raises one and only one claim: “coercion and enticement to sexual activity in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2422.”
Continue Reading The Unique Federal Sexual Abuse Claim In The Kevin Clash (Elmo’s Voice) Lawsuit

Read more about Philadelphia priest molestation lawsuits. This post is cross-posted on the Philadelphia Priest Abuse Trial Blog.

On Thursday, after the prosecution closed their case, Judge Sarmina swiftly dismissed the conspiracy charges against Monsignor Lynn and Father Brennan.  Although the move caught some observers by surprise, it was likely not a surprise to the prosecutors.  To prove a criminal conspiracy, the Commonwealth has to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendants had a “shared criminal intent,” defined by Pennsylvania law as “the common understanding that a particular criminal objective is to be accomplished.” Commonwealth v. Lambert, 795 A.2d 1010 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2002). Whatever Monsignor Lynn’s crime was, the evidence did not show, beyond a reasonable doubt, that he intended for children to be molested.  Thus, the conspiracy charge was plainly difficult to prove from the onset, and the dismissal is not surprising given the actual evidence presented.

Which brings us to the core question of this case:  What was Monsignor Lynn’s intent?

For centuries, the English common law, and subsequently the American common law, has required that criminal convictions include proof of two separate elements:  the mens rea (the guilty mind) and the actus reus (the guilty act).  In Lynn’s case, he is charged with endangering the welfare of children, and I don’t think anyone can genuinely dispute that Monsignor Lynn’s actions in fact endangered the welfare of children within the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s parishes and schools.  There is no denying that, as of at least February 18, 1994, when Lynn drew up the list of 35 sexually abusive priests, Lynn’s acts — such as his involvement in transferring priests around once allegations were made — and his inactions — such as his failure to ever report any of them to the police — allowed abusive clergy to keep preying on children in the community.  But it is a fundamental premise of our criminal law that the magnitude of the damage caused is not by itself enough to prove that a crime occurred, the prosecution must also prove he had the mens rea for the crime.

Proving mens rea is inherently difficult; “for who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the man’s spirit within him?” 1 Corinthians 2:11. It is only on television that defendants suddenly concede at trial their own guilt and malicious intent.  In real courtrooms, defendants never confess on the stand, and they also typically have not left behind “smoking gun” emails or letters outlining their wicked plans. Mens rea is thus typically proven through circumstantial evidence, and that’s why the prosecution put on the case they did, which at many times looked more like an indictment of the Catholic Church itself than of Lynn personally.  
Continue Reading What Did The Prosecution Prove About Monsignor Lynn?

Read more about our law firm’s Philadelphia child molestation lawyers. This post is cross-posted on the Philadelphia Priest Abuse Trial Blog.

As Ralph Cipriano reported, the defense attorney for Father Brennan spent a lot of time cross-examining the prosecution’s chief witness against Father Brennan by going into the alleged victim’s reaction to the molestation, including why the alleged victim — an adolescent boy at the time — did not call out to his mother afterwards, why the alleged victim took a subsequent motorcycle ride with Father Brennan, and why the alleged victim didn’t report the assault to authorities sooner.

Father Brennan’s attorney, coincidentally named William Brennan, has an important job to do — safeguarding his client’s constitutional rights and challenging the testimony of his accuser — so I don’t fault him for going into those issues, but these types of questions raise a common problem in both criminal sexual assault prosecutions and civil sexual abuse lawsuits:  the persistence of rape myths in society and in the courts. The term “rape myths” was coined by psychologists as a means of describing false attitudes and beliefs that serve to deny allegations of sexual abuse and to thwart accountability for abusers.

Some of these rape myths are easy to spot.  For example, many people will thoughtlessly say a victim “asked for it” by wearing the wrong clothes or by drinking alcohol, or they assume that victims are lying for attention or to cover up an affair.  Myths like these are so pernicious and pervasive that the people perpetuating them don’t realize it. Thus, even people acting in good faith can end up applying rape myths to treat allegations of sexual abuse differently from other allegations of criminal conduct and to demand more proof from sexual abuse survivors (such as corroborating evidence in addition to testimony) than they do from other crime victims.

The testimony by Father Brennan’s alleged victim, and by many of the alleged clergy abuse victims, raises one of the more common rape myths: that a victim of rape, sexual assault, or molestation will resist an attacker forcefully, will cry out for help during the attack, and will immediately report the assault to others.  
Continue Reading There’s No “Normal” Way For A Clergy Abuse Or Sexual Assault Victim To Act

Read more about our Pennsylvania clergy abuse lawyers. This post is cross-posted on our Philadelphia Priest Abuse Trial Blog, where investigative reporter Ralph Cipriano is covering the criminal trial of Monsignor Lynn.

From the war on drugs to criminal copyright infringement, a number of commentators, legal scholars, politicians and even sitting judges have criticized the breadth of American criminal law, like the prevalence of non-violent or “victimless” crimes that don’t have a direct victim, and the Draconian mandatory penalties that are meted out, even where the judge and jury applying those laws think that less severe penalties would be appropriate. As a consequence of this “overcriminalization,” the United States has by far the highest incarceration rate in the world, so that, with only five percent of the world’s population, we nonetheless have twenty-five percent of its prisoners, most of them imprisoned for non-violent offenses, typically drug offenses.

Historically, and continuing to the present, there have been two glaring exceptions to this expansion of criminality: abuse within the family (whether spousal abuse or child abuse) and criminal conduct by large institutions (like corporations, universities, or churches), both of which have generally gone unpunished, without prosecution, and without even investigation. Child abuse was not considered a crime until the 1870s, when Mary Connolly was prosecuted for “attacking her foster child with a pair of scissors and repeatedly beating her with a rawhide whip and cane.” (Quote from the Logan article discussed below.) She was convicted, and after that various “children’s guardian” boards were created. The prosecution of child abuse, however, remained rare until the 1960s, when new mandatory reporting laws were enacted that required healthcare professionals to report suspicions of child abuse to government authorities.  Similarly, in the 1980s, public awareness of the sexual abuse of children increased dramatically, so that today child abuse prosecutions are no longer the rare, newsworthy events that they once were.

Prosecutions of crimes that occur within the context of a large institution are even less common than prosecutions for spousal abuse or child abuse, and they even more rarely result in a conviction. Outside of a handful of prominent examples — like Bernie Madoff and Jeffrey Skilling — financial institution fraud prosecutions have fallen over the past 20 years, down to under 1,400 a year across the entire country. Many prosecutions of alleged crimes that occurred inside a corporation with the knowledge of other employees, like the prosecution of GlaxoSmithKline associate counsel Lauren Stevens, ended in failure, dismissed prior to a jury ruling.

Clergy abuse implicates both tendencies in American law — the reluctance to prosecute child abuse by people close to the family and the preference for letting institutions resolve problems “internally” — by virtue of the church’s role in society, in communities, and in families. In a law review article published in 2003 in the Harvard Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Law Review, Professor Wayne A. Logan of Florida State University’s College of Law tied these issues together under the framework of “criminal law sanctuaries,” going all the way back to the role of the church in the middle ages in serving as a “sanctuary” that would shield accused criminals from prosecution. 
Continue Reading Monsignor Lynn And The Duty To Prevent Child Abuse

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One of the points I stressed when writing about the Sandusky child abuse scandal at Penn State was the role of the statute of limitations: due to the timing of the last change in Pennsylvania’s childhood sexual abuse statute, some of Sandusky’s victims may be outside the time in which they can file a claim, while others can still file. Putting aside the efforts to extend the statute of limitations in Pennsylvania — long stalled thanks to the efforts of the Catholic Conference — there’s the simple question for lawyers representing those victims: how do you advocate for a client whose case has expired?

The issue has come back into the press with the recent accusation by two former batboys for the Orioles, both now in their 30s, who allege they were victimized by Red Sox clubhouse manager, Donald Fitzpatrick, who died in 2005 and has been accused of molesting nearly two dozen former batboys. The lawyer representing most of the victims has openly conceded many their claims are outside the statute of limitations, but the Baltimore Sun reports he’s demanding $5 million for each nonetheless.

The idea of “trying cases in the press” has a storied history of severing the legal community into two camps, the first believing the tactic to be at best jury tampering and at worst extortion by public relations, the second seeing the tactic as yet another tool in the lawyer’s toolbox that has to be used by the zealous advocate when circumstances demand it.
Continue Reading The Ethics Of Fighting An Expired Case In The Press

Read more about our law firm’s Catholic Priest Abuse practice.

As I’ve mentioned before, I think the motivations that compel lawyers to deny reality while defending some clients are varied and complex, but it cannot be denied that, in many cases, the defense is premised not on providing explanations or raising genuine doubts, but on burying the truth.

Lest we forget what brought us to the ongoing criminal trial of Monsignor William Lynn, here is how the grand jury report against him begins:

In September 2003, a grand jury of local citizens released a report detailing a sad history of sexual abuse by priests of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. That abuse was known, tolerated, and hidden by high church officials, up to and including the Cardinal himself. The previous grand jury was frustrated that it could not charge either the abusers or their protectors in the church, because the successful cover-up of the abuse resulted in the expiration of the statute of limitations. Now, measures taken in response to the previous report have led to new information about more recent abuse, which this grand jury was empaneled to investigate. The fact that we received that information, and from the church itself, is some sign of progress; and this time there will be charges.

The present grand jury, however, is frustrated to report that much has not changed. The rapist priests we accuse were well known to the Secretary of Clergy, but he cloaked their conduct and put them in place to do it again. The procedures implemented by the Archdiocese to help victims are in fact designed to help the abusers, and the Archdiocese itself. Worst of all, apparent abusers – dozens of them, we believe – remain on duty in the Archdiocese, today, with open access to new young prey.

And so we come to the latest, but not the last, controversy in the criminal case, this time over the remarks made by presiding Common Pleas Court Judge M. Teresa Sarmina. A week ago, before the trial began, the lawyers for the Catholic Church wanted to ask potential jurors, “Do you believe child sexual abuse is a widespread problem in the Catholic Church?” Judge Sarmina struck the question, answering “Anybody that doesn’t think there is widespread sexual abuse within the Catholic Church is living on another planet.”Continue Reading Do Lawyers Defending The Catholic Church Live On Another Planet?

Read more about our law firm’s Pennsylvania sexual abuse lawyers.

In less than three months, Joe Paterno went from one of the most revered figures in sports and a Pennsylvania institution to being implicated in a scandal, terminated from the job he had held for generations, and excoriated by the media to a historical figure who is no longer with us. He passed away over the weekend at the age of 85. A memento mori indeed.

I did not attend Penn State, so I’ll leave the remembrances to others. Paterno died, however, amidst a national scandal, two criminal prosecutions, and likely more than a dozen civil lawsuits to be filed. In those same three months the legal issues surrounding the Sandusky indictment have already advanced considerably, and now there’s a new question: what effect will Joe Paterno’s death have on the ensuing criminal and civil litigation?

I was quoted in a Reuters article that addressed those issues:

Because Paterno was not believed to have witnessed any purported abuse, his testimony would not have been crucial to Sandusky trial, said Paul Callan, a former prosecutor and criminal defense attorney.

But his death could set back the criminal case against Curley and Schultz.

“The Confrontation Clause (of the constitution) guarantees that criminal defendants will have the right to confront and cross-examine the witnesses against them at the time of trial,” Callan said. “No defense attorneys were present at the grand jury proceedings to do such a cross-examination.”

Max Kennerly, a Philadelphia trial lawyer who has followed the case, said Paterno’s death was unlikely to alter any civil litigation being contemplated by Sandusky’s accusers. If any were considering suing Paterno, they could just name his estate.

“Death doesn’t change your status as a party,” Kennerly said.

It wasn’t my intent to sound callous, but, in the legal world, death typically doesn’t break a case except where either a criminal defendant dies (and there’s no point in going forward) or the sole complaining witness against a criminal defendant dies (“no witness, no case” is the disturbing motto sometimes tied to witness intimidation or witness murder prosecutions, like Paul Bergrin’s). Here, Paterno wasn’t a defendant and, as far as anyone has said publicly, he didn’t witness any of the sexual assaults nor did Jerry Sandusky make any incriminating remarks to Paterno.
Continue Reading The Legal Effect of Paterno’s Death

Norm Pattis’ latest blog post raises an issue near and dear to me: the ethics of personal injury lawyers. I certainly don’t think personal injury lawyers are above reproach, and I’ve commented before on some of the stupid things they can do, but I’m not going to sit quietly and nod politely when a lawyer in another field claims its unethical for an alleged victim’s lawyer to zealously represent their client.

Norm is a criminal defense lawyer; as he posted a few days ago, the next year brings for him “trials involving child sex abuse, child pornography, drugs.” I’m going to go out on a limb and speculate that at least one of those defendants is in fact guilty of at least one crime with which they’re charged, and yet I wish Norm the very best in his defense: that’s his job, and he is required to zealously represent his clients and use every appropriate tactic available to further their defense. That’s how our adversarial system works. That’s how constitutional rights are protected.

Norm, however, apparently doesn’t have the same respect for what the civil lawyers for sexual abuse victims do.
Continue Reading The Ethics Of Using Money To Link Criminal And Civil Sexual Abuse Cases

My post on the potential civil lawsuits arising from the Jerry Sandusky molestation scandal at PSU still generates a fair amount of traffic, mostly from people looking for updates on the latest legal developments. If the internet asks, it shall receive.

There have been four major developments relating to the case:

  1. A preliminary hearing for the criminal charges against Tim Curley and Gary Schultz;
  2. The filing of another civil lawsuit against Sandusky, Penn State, and The Second Mile;
  3. The filing of a declaratory judgment action by Federal Insurance Company of New Jersey, the insurance company for The Second Mile, to obtain a court order relieving it of any duty to defend or to indemnify Sandusky for the sexual abuse claims against him; and,
  4. The disclosure of multiple allegations of child molestation against longtime Philadelphia Daily News sportswriter Bill Conlin, allegations involving conduct from decades ago, apparently spurned in part by the Sandusky indictment. (This development is legally connected to the Sandusky indictment because of the statute of limitations, as explained below).

Let’s consider them bit by bit.Continue Reading Sandusky Civil Law Update: Insurance, New Lawsuit, and the Preliminary Hearing