First, an important credit: The Philadelphia Inquirer has devoted a half-dozen stories to the plight of Barbara Mancini. All the facts described in this post come from their reports.

Joseph Yourshaw, 93 years old and a World War II veteran who had served in the Battle of the Bulge, was in home-hospice dying from kidney failure, end-stage diabetes, and heart disease, with additional complications from a stroke and pain from arthritis. Barbara Mancini was a nurse in Philadelphia and, it seems, quite a good daughter, as she had made the 2-hour trek up to Pottsville in Schuykill County to be bedside with him and to help him with his medications. He was in severe pain, as usual, and he had a prescription for morphine. She asked the hospice nurse for a bottle of morphine; it’s apparently disputed whether she asked for a second one after already giving him one, or whether she asked for a second one because the first hadn’t arrived yet and Yourshaw was in pain.

And that’s when the nightmare started. The hospice nurse called 911, and reported the following:

The nurse “told me that her client had taken an overdose of his morphine with the intent to commit suicide,” [police officer] Durkin wrote in his report.

The nurse said Mancini, who also is a nurse, gave her father the morphine “at his request so that he could end his own suffering,” Durkin wrote.

Before getting to the prosecution, let’s start with the factual predicate. If everything the nurse said was true — thus far, as is typical when there is a criminal prosecution, Mancini has not given her side of the story publicly — then so what? Pennsylvania law allows a person to voluntarily die by way of suspending medical care, food, water, ventilation, and so on and so forth; the state even has a website set up so people can correctly set up their advance directives for health care paperwork. If we allow someone to literally starve himself to death rather than continue living with a terminal illness, why don’t we allow him to simply increase the dosage of the pain medication he’s already taking?

Indeed, the United States Supreme Court has already said it’s okay for States to allow patients to request life-threatening levels of palliative medication:

Just as a State may prohibit assisting suicide while permitting patients to refuse unwanted lifesaving treatment, it may permit palliative care related to that refusal, which may have the foreseen but unintended “double effect” of hastening the patient’s death. See New York Task Force, When Death is Sought, supra n. 6, at 163 (“It is widely recognized that the provision of pain medication is ethically and professionally acceptable even when the treatment may hasten the patient’s death, if the medication is intended to alleviate pain and severe discomfort, not to cause death”).

Vacco v. Quill, 521 U.S. 793, 807, Fn 11 (1997). But, just because something is “ethically and professionally acceptable” doesn’t mean it’s lawful in Pennsylvania, and our Commonwealth still has the absurd notion that what allegedly happened to Mr. Yourshaw was a terrible crime.
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Philly is still reeling from the horrific Center City building collapse last week. Every conversation I’ve had included both shock over the poor oversight of high-risk work like demolition and the conclusion that, surely, the City will be sued and will pay something towards the victims. Most everyone, including other lawyers who don’t do catastrophic injury work, are shocked to hear that it is unlikely that the City will be liable.

The primary cause of disaster is obvious: the work crew performed appallingly amateurish work. Taking down a building literally joined to other buildings isn’t rocket science, but it still requires structural engineering work. First, per OSHA, “an engineering survey shall be made, by a competent person, of the structure to determine the condition of the framing, floors, and walls, and possibility of unplanned collapse of any portion of the structure,” and then steps need to be taken to avoid such “unplanned collapses,” such as by braces, or shoring, or helical piers, or all three, and then, in all likelihood, the structure needs to be taken down manually.

What you don’t do is what property owner Richard C. Basciano apparently did: pay some bankrupt company $10,000 to rip the thing down with sledgehammers and an excavator, and then get it “expedited” by an architect who never bothers to review the demolition plan. The general rule is that “a landowner who engages an independent contractor is not responsible for the acts or omissions of such independent contractor or his employees,” Beil v. Telesis Const., Inc., 11 A.3d 456 (Pa. 2011), which would seem to absolve Basciano, but that rule is subject to a number of exceptions, like the “dangerous condition,” “retained control,” and “peculiar risk” exceptions. For a discussion of all three, see Farabaugh v. Pennsylvania Turnpike Com’n, 911 A.2d 1264 (Pa. 2006). It is in general hard to pin liability on a property owner, but this situation looks nothing like your typical by-the-book demolition.
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I suppose it’s unsurprising that criminal defense lawyers and plaintiff’s lawyers would all have concerns about the use of Tasers — the Taser victims and their family members end up in our offices — but even prosecutors and municipal and state defense lawyers (speaking off the record, of course) express dismay at the frequency and manner in which Tasers are used.

By Amnesty International’s count, since 2001 over 500 people have died in the US as a result of Taser use. Police departments have just begun admitting there’s a problem. Cincinnati’s police chief has admitted Tasers can kill. Seattle won dismissal of the civil rights claims in a case case where they Tasered a pregnant woman for refusing to sign a speeding ticket and, rather than crowing over their victory, said they had already changed their policy. It’s a start; as I’ve discussed before, the tendency of police departments to move from zealous law enforcement to brutality is all too common.

Alas, if you’re a criminal defense lawyer or a civil rights lawyer, then you instinctively rolled your eyes the moment you read the phrase “changed their policy.” To what? Do these new policies treat Tasers the way they should be treated — given the studies confirming real risks of heart attacks and skull fractures — as a means of last resort, literally a substitute for a bullet, instead of a more convenient means of obtaining compliance? Or do these new policies merely warn about “extended or repeated Taser exposure” — which some police officers will gladly read as including more than a minute of tasing, and dozens of shocks — with an all-purpose exception for “active resistance,” so the police officers can always claim the suspect was “actively resisting” and thereby comply with the Potemkin policy?

Which brings us to the point of this post. So, you’re a plaintiff’s lawyer, and a client (or their survivor) has just come in after a tasing incident. Now what?

There are three main claims you could bring: (1) excessive force civil rights claims against the cops; (2) a Monell practice or policy claim against the police department; and, (3) a products liability claim in strict liability or negligence against Taser International itself.

Excessive force claims (of all types, not just Tasers) are common; they’re disfavored by federal courts that are a bit too keen on summary judgment, but they’re typically inexpensive to litigate and can provide for attorney’s fees if successful, which is important because the verdicts and settlements are typically fairly low unless the client is brain damaged, paralyzed, or deceased. The real art is in distinguishing strong claims from merely meritorious ones in effectively conveying your own client’s version of events while undermining the police officer’s undoubtedly different version, and in grappling with the tendency of many jurors to believe your client got what was coming to them.

Monell claims are also tough. Courts rarely let any type of civil rights claim get to a jury, and courts are even more strict on Monell claims. There’s little harm in alleging them in the complaint, but get moving in discovery to back them up — and if you can’t back them up, know when to fold them and stop wasting everyone’s time. Truth is, Monell claims are generally not the province of generalist personal injury lawyers doing an occasional police brutality or wrongful prosecution case, they’re more for civil rights and public interest lawyers who have repeatedly seen the same problem and so already have the inside knowledge needed to back up the claims.

Finally, product liability lawsuits in general are not for the faint of heart nor plaintiff’s lawyers on shoestring budgets, and lawsuits directly against Taser International are no exception. Consider this: Taser won the first 60 product liability lawsuits filed against it, going back to the early 1990s, then finally lost one in 2008. Similarly, like with most product liability claims, plaintiffs’ firms should expect to pay $100,000 in costs just to get to a jury and should have the wherewithal to pay $250,000 on a single risky case. Needless to say, that means Taser product liability suits tend to make sense only when your client has been catastrophically injured or when your suit is on behalf of survivors. Study the Fontenot and Rich cases below; if you don’t have a case like that — e.g., a client who died from a heart attack after being tasered in the chest by a cop taught by Taser to go for “center of mass” — then consider forgoing the product liability claim because it’ll just chew up your time and money, reduce the recovery for your client, and create bad law for the rest of us. If you have a case like that but don’t have the ability to prepare or to fund it, refer it to someone who can.

Now, on to the law.


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[Update II, April 30, 2012: As some media outlets have reported, our law firm now represents the Tezsla family. The below post was written and published before we were retained and should not be considered the family’s or our law firm’s official statement on the case.]

[Update, February 24, 2012: The NTSB confirmed several facts this morning, including the school bus driver’s statements that his line of sight was obstructed and so he inched forward at the intersection and that he never saw the dump truck. The investigators also said the dump truck was overloaded past its weight limit, which, as discussed below, would factor into its ability to stop. Obviously, overloading a truck is itself negligent, and it subjects the trucking company to further liability.]

Readers of this blog anywhere near New Jersey undoubtedly know the story; for readers elsewhere, here’s NBC Philadelphia’s coverage. Thursday morning, a dump truck hit a elementary school bus at the intersection of Bordentown-Chesterfield Road and Old York in Chesterfield, NJ, killing 11-year-old Isabelle Tezsla, seriously injuring two other students including one of her triplet sisters, and leaving 17 more students with minor injuries.

I have written about some of the unique issues that arise in school bus accidents before — an issue that’s often on my mind now since my four-year-old twins rode a yellow school bus for the first time last week (and seemed to enjoy the bus ride more than the field trip destination) — but I didn’t intend on writing about this accident until I saw that the National Transportation Safety Board has already begun investigating the accident, with a focus on the seat belts in the school bus. I’m glad to hear there will be more investigation into the use of seat belts in schools buses — as discussed below, it’s a complicated issue that goes beyond a simple trade-off of cost versus safety — but I don’t want the two biggest factors that may have caused the crash, dangerous road design and driver error, to go unnoticed.

In general, there are five major contributing factors in fatal automobile accidents: dangerous road conditions, dangerous road design, driver error, vehicle malfunction, and vehicle crashworthiness.

From what I’ve read so far, the road conditions didn’t seem to be a factor. There was light rain, but nothing that substantially impaired visibility or traction. As far as I know, there’s no indication of a spill on the roads or a pothole or the like. Similarly, I haven’t seen any discussion of a vehicle malfunction, such as the brakes on the dump truck failing, the tires on either being too worn down, or the like.

My suspicion is that the road design was likely a cause of this accident. The intersection of Bordentown-Chesterfield Road (County Route 528) and Old York Road (County Road 660), which can be seen on Google Maps, is undeniably unsafe. There’s no signal or stop light, and only one road, Old York, has to stop. It’s not necessarily a problem when only one road stops; at least where drivers aren’t distracted, we assume that drivers on Old York will obey the stop sign then look both ways before crossing, and that drivers on Bordentown-Chesterfield Road will slow down if they see someone cross in front of them.

The problem is visibility.


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[Update, September 2014: I wrote the below post in February 2012, when a prominent economist and blogger seriously claimed “The most plausible route to the death of football starts with liability suits.” In a mere two-and-a-half years, the tide has turned considerably, and it had nothing to do with liability suits. Jason Kottke recently collected multiple articles by die-hard football fans explaining why they won’t watch the sport any more. More and more people can’t handle the greed, the violence, and the damage — just today, Esquire had a piece on the league’s disgraceful handling of Ray Rice’s domestic abuse. Professional football is dying, and it has nothing to do with lawsuits.]

Tyler Cowen, an economist at George Mason University, has made a name for himself explaining how important it is that things stay just the way they are. (Cf. David Hume) Earlier this week, for example, he was in the New York Times opining that our banking oligarchy can’t be broken up because smaller banks “could make mistakes or take on bad risks without being punished very much in terms of capitalization revenue,” as if we didn’t just loan $1.2 trillion and directly pay $182 billion to bail out these same big banks precisely because they “made mistakes or took on bad risks.” As Paul Krugman aptly summed up one of Tyler’s critiques of a model of macroeconomics,

There’s something about macro that seems to invite this sort of thing: more even than the rest of economics, macro seems afflicted with people who mistake confusion for insight, who think their own failure to understand basic ideas reflects a failure of those ideas rather than their own limitations.

“Mistaking confusion for insight” is one of the hallmarks of attacks on our legal system, with nary a day going by without a prominent politician or the like making a hopelessly ignorant comment about the law, like Rick Santorum’s passionate argument in favor of scrapping the Constitution and replacing it with the Articles of Confederation.

Grantland, launched last year, was premised on the crazy idea that there existed a sizable market of readers who appreciated both long-form journalism and the world of sports. I haven’t a clue if the website is doing well financially, but they’ve been a journalistic success, with fascinating articles like this article on a boxing match in 1810 that set the stage for almost every fighting trope you see today. Just when I think the site is the go-to resource for sports reporting, I see Tyler Cowen (along with Kevin Grier, another economist) bring his ipse dixit style to the subject of tort lawyers and football:

The most plausible route to the death of football starts with liability suits. Precollegiate football is already sustaining 90,000 or more concussions each year. If ex-players start winning judgments, insurance companies might cease to insure colleges and high schools against football-related lawsuits. Coaches, team physicians, and referees would become increasingly nervous about their financial exposure in our litigious society. If you are coaching a high school football team, or refereeing a game as a volunteer, it is sobering to think that you could be hit with a $2 million lawsuit at any point in time. A lot of people will see it as easier to just stay away. More and more modern parents will keep their kids out of playing football, and there tends to be a “contagion effect” with such decisions; once some parents have second thoughts, many others follow suit. We have seen such domino effects with the risks of smoking or driving without seatbelts, two unsafe practices that were common in the 1960s but are much rarer today. The end result is that the NFL’s feeder system would dry up and advertisers and networks would shy away from associating with the league, owing to adverse publicity and some chance of being named as co-defendants in future lawsuits.

In other words, the old trial lawyers are taking the fun out of everything argument. It’s often trotted out to claim that lawyers are responsible for taking the fun out of playgrounds, so it was only inevitable before someone claimed that trial lawyers posed the greatest threat to our nation: as Cowen and Grier claim, because of lawyers, “American people … might actually start calling ‘soccer’ by the moniker of ‘football.’”

The horror!


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From a safety standpoint, school buses are like commercial airlines. Mile-for-mile, they’re one of the safest modes of transportation; as the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration noted a decade ago while reviewing whether or not to require seat belts in school buses (more about crashworthiness here), the fatality rate for school buses is 0.2 fatalities for every 100 million vehicle miles traveled as compared to 1.5 fatalities for cars.

Like with commercial airliners, though, if a school bus accident does occur, then it’s likely to cause a lot of damage, and the accident is likely the result of colossal negligence. Current NHTSA data shows there are on average 142 school transportation-related fatal crashes every year — nearly three deaths a week — most of them occupants of other vehicles that were hit by buses or vans, a fifth of them being bicyclists or pedestrians, and just under a tenth of them being occupants of the school transportation vehicle. In many ways that’s not surprising: it’s well known that passengers in heavier vehicles are more likely to survive multi-vehicle crashes, and school buses are heavier than most of the vehicles with which they’re likely to collide.

One of the more shocking statistics revolves around school transportation vehicles hitting school students:

On average, 14 school-age pedestrians are killed by school transportation vehicles (school buses and non-school bus vehicles used as school buses) each year, and 3 are killed by other vehicles involved in school bus-related crashes.

More school-age pedestrians have been killed between the hours of 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. than any other time of day.

It’s not hard to see why most accidents happen then: everyone’s tired and has let their guard down. School bus drivers typically report to work before 7 a.m., work until at least 10 a.m., then either work at the school (as a janitor, mechanic, or teaching assistant), do shuttle routes, or take a short break until they return again around 2 p.m. to take the kids home. By 3 p.m., they’re tired, ready to finish the day, and not nearly as alert.

Which is how Ashley Zauflik had her pelvis fractured and lost a leg. As the National Transportation Safety Board summarized the accident:

On Friday January 12, 2007 at approximately 2:30 p.m. EST a 1995 Thomas, 78 passenger school bus was one of several school buses parked side by side in the parking lot of the Pennsbury High School East Campus. After loading 10 students, the 54-year old driver placed the school bus in gear and released the parking brake, when he reported that the school bus suddenly accelerated and he was unable to stop the school bus. The bus traveled approximately 23 feet when the right front wheel of the bus climbed a 4-inch high curb onto the sidewalk in front of the school. The bus continued to travel approximately 25 feet on the sidewalk, striking 18 students on the sidewalk (pedestrians).

The driver wasn’t as familiar with that type of Thomas school bus, and so committed a classic driver error by stepping on the accelerator rather than the brake. He panicked when the bus jumped forward, causing him to mistakenly press even harder on the accelerator.

The case should be clear-cut in terms of automobile liability law. It is plain, clear, unequivocal negligence for a school bus driver parked at a school to hit the gas instead of the brake when preparing to begin his run. We call it “pedal misapplication.”
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Read more about Pennsylvania child molestation lawsuits.

The big legal news in Pennsylvania last week was of course the indictment of former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky for allegedly sexually abusing at least eight children on or around Penn State. Being a civil litigator who has sued universities and has represented victims of sexual abuse on college campuses, I felt compelled to say something, so I wrote about Penn State’s potential liability in civil lawsuits brought by the victims. I reviewed and cited cases and statutes; you know, the stuff lawyers do when they want to get things right.

Then I read the news today, oh, boy.

In the New York Times:

“It’s a huge uphill battle to collect from the state,” said Saul Levmore, a professor and former dean at the University of Chicago Law School. “Plaintiff lawyers love to jump up and down about $100 million settlements, but there are a lot of hurdles in the way to that.”

Doriane Coleman, a professor at the Duke University School of Law, said that unlike the Catholic Church, which was the target of previous child abuse lawsuits, Penn State is a state institution and thereby should be protected by a doctrine known as sovereign immunity, which in essence protects state entities — and possibly state employees acting in the normal course of their jobs — from tort claims.

“I see this as very difficult to overcome,” Coleman said.

The esteemed law professors (I’ve referenced Coleman’s work favorably on this blog before) should have read my post: Penn State is not a “state institution.” Pennsylvania State University, like Temple University, Lincoln University, and the University of Pittsburgh, is part of Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth System of Higher Education, and is a “state-related university.”

Let Pennsylvania’s auditor general explain:

In 1855, the Pennsylvania legislature chartered the school that later became known as The Pennsylvania State University of the Commonwealth System of Higher Education. … The college became The Pennsylvania State University in 1953. Today, as part of the Commonwealth System of Higher Education, The Pennsylvania State University receives approximately 8 percent of its unrestricted fund revenues from the Commonwealth and is one of four state-related universities.

State-related universities don’t enjoy sovereign immunity. Doughty v. City of Philadelphia, 141 Pa.Commonwealth Ct. 659, 596 A.2d 1187 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 1991)(denying Temple University tort tmmunity). That’s in contrast to the universities in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE), which are immune. Poliskiewicz v. East Stroudsburg University, 113 Pa.Cmwlth. 13, 536 A.2d 472, 474 (1988).

[Addendum: In the comments, a smart “Guest” notes that Doughty was fact-specific to Temple University, and that the same analysis might not apply to Penn State. The commentator is right — Doughty is specific to Temple University — but there’s reason to believe Pennsylvania courts would not recognize Penn State as having sovereign immunity. In 1999, for example, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court firmly held “PSU is not an agency of the Commonwealth” for purposes of exemptions from real-estate taxation. Pa. State Univ. v. Derry Twp. Sch. Dist., 557 Pa. 91, 94, 731 A.2d 1272, 1273 (1999). I’ve cut and pasted at the end of this post the pertinent part of their reasoning.

I don’t see any reason why the analysis would be different for tort immunity, and I find it important that, although Penn State has been sued in the past, it has never really pushed the sovereign immunity argument.]


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Read more about our sexual abuse lawsuit practice.

[UPDATE, July 12, 2012: The independent report by Louis Freeh’s law firm has been released. It is damning, to say the least, concluding there was a “total and consistent disregard by the most senior leaders at Penn State for the safety and welfare of Sandusky’s child victims.” Blame is rightfully heaped upon Paterno, Spanier, Curley, and Schultz.]

[UPDATE, June 22, 2012: Jerry Sandusky was convicted on almost all counts. Reuters quoted me talking about the effect of the prosecution and conviction on the civil lawsuits pre-verdict here and post-verdict here. Short version: Penn State, as I had hoped, is signaling their willingness to settle the cases. As a legal matter, the Sandusky conviction acts as collateral estoppel on the victims’ claims that they were abused — establishing that fact conclusively in later proceedings — but that doesn’t mean Penn State is automatically liable. Also, as a practical matter, the Sandusky prosecution didn’t reveal as much about Penn States actions (or inactions) as the Schultz and Curley trials will.]

[UPDATE, March 2, 2012: The Bill of Particulars has been filed against Jerry Sandusky. A copy is available here. As The Daily Collegian reports, “eight of the 10 men connected to Sandusky’s charges were sexually abused on Penn State’s campus — in the Lasch Football Building, the East Area Locker Rooms and an outdoor pool.” That increases Penn State’s liability: in addition to claims that PSU failed to act on the reports it had, those eight men can all allege that PSU failed to maintain a safe campus by permitting Sandusky access to those facilities and allowing him to bring children onto the premises.]

[UPDATE, November 30, 2011: A previously unknown victim has filed a civil lawsuit against Sandusky, Penn State, and the Second Mile. A copy of the complaint is available here; it alleges the theories I described below, plus claims of negligent and intentional misrepresentation. There’s nothing wrong with those claims, but I don’t think they add much value. Intriguingly, the Complaint says the victim was 10 years old in 1992 — which means the statute of limitations turns on his birthday. If he turned 18 before August 27, 2000, he can’t use the 2002 amendments to preserve his claim, and will instead have to use other theories to maintain his claim, theories Pennsylvania courts have rejected in clergy abuse cases. That strikes me as profoundly unjust, and I reiterate my hope that Penn State and the Second Mile establish a compensation fund and try to work through this process amicably.]

Note: this post is long because it’s comprehensive, addressing:

  • the types of claims survivors can bring in a civil lawsuit,
  • the role of the statute of limitations, and whose claims are still within it,
  • whether or not Penn State is immune from liability under the ‘sovereign immunity’ doctrine,
  • the compensation that may be available (through settlement or jury verdict), and
  • the reality of sexual abuse litigation.

I’ve also written a couple follow-up posts under the Penn State Liability tag.

Pennsylvania and the nation has been shocked by Saturday’s grand jury presentation (essentially an indictment) of Jerry Sandusky, a former defensive coordinator for Penn State’s football team, for sexually abusing eight children that he “groomed” through a charity for troubled young boys he founded, The Second Mile. Also indicted were athletic director Tim Curley and a Penn State Senior VP, Gary Schultz, for perjury and failure to report the abuse to authorities. NPR has a breakdown of key figures and the timeline. The Pennsylvania State University Board of Trustees has fired Joe Paterno and President Graham Spanier over the scandal.

Lawyers writing about criminal indictments feel an obligation to remind everyone who might come across their articles that our legal system presumes everyone is innocent of the allegations made against them by prosecutors until they are proven guilty in court. Everyone — even apparent child molesters — is entitled to their day in court, so I’ll reiterate that here. My analysis of the civil claims below, though, presumes the accusations made by grand jury’s presentation are largely true.

It’s bad enough that two separate Penn State officials apparently tried so hard to cover up the sexual abuse that they got themselves indicted, but perhaps even more disturbing is how preventable most of the abuse was:

HARRISBURG, Pa. – Penn State officials had three opportunities to stop Jerry Sandusky from preying on young boys but failed to take action, state police Commissioner Frank Noonan said Monday at a news conference with Attorney General Linda Kelly.

“This is not a case about football, it’s not a case about universities_it’s about children who have their innocence taken from them and a culture that did not nothing to stop it or prevent it from happening to others,” Noonan said.

Two Penn State administrators are charged with lying to the grand jury and failing to report an abuse allegation. Kelly said Monday that Coach Joe Paterno was a witness for the grand jury and faces no charges.

In 1998, there was a police investigation in which [Sandusky] “made admissions about inappropriate contact in a shower room.” Nothing happened.

In 2000, janitors saw him performing oral sex on a child in the shower room, but they discussed it only amongst themselves. Nothing happened.

In 2002, a graduate student (and now an assistant coach there) reported to Paterno “fondling or something sexual,” which Paterno apparently passed on to school administrations. Nothing happened.

We like to think that a sexual predator could only molest multiple children over the course of years through methodical concealment of their crimes and intimidation of witnesses, but that simply wasn’t the case. This also wasn’t a failure of one or two people in a moment of weakness, doubt or cowardice. The whole system abused these children by enabling their abuser.

Consider this part of the grand jury presentment:

Schultz testified that he knew about an investigation of Sandusky that occurred in 1998, that the “child protection agency” had done, and he testified that he believed this same agency was investigating the 2002 report by the graduate assistant. Schultz acknowledged that there were similarities between the 1998 and 2002 allegations, both of which involved minor boys in the football showers with Sandusky behaving in a sexually inappropriate manner. Schultz testified that the 1998 incident was reviewed by the University Police and “the child protection agency” with the blessing of then-University counsel Wendell Courtney. Courtney was then and remains counsel for The Second Mile. Schultz confirmed that University President Graham Spanier was apprised in 2002 that a report of an incident involving Sandusky and a child in the showers on campus had been reported by an employee. Schultz testified that Spanier approved the decision to ban Sandusky from bringing children into the football locker room and the decision to advise The Second Mile of the 2002 incident.

Although Schultz oversaw the University Police as part of his position, he never reported the 2002 incident to the University Police or other police agency, never sought or reviewed a police report on the 1998 incident and never attempted to learn the identity of the child in the shower in 2002. No one from the University did so. Schultz did not ask the graduate assistant for specifics. No one ever did. Schultz expressed surprise upon learning that the 1998 investigation by University Police produced a lengthy police report. Schultz said there was never any discussion between himself and Curley about turning the 2002 incident over to any police agency. Schultz retired in June 2009 but currently holds the same position as a senior vice president with Penn State, on an interim basis.

Lest there be any confusion that Penn State had simply failed to grasp the severity of an ambiguous situation, the graduate student reported that he “saw a naked boy, Victim 2, whose age he estimated to be ten years old” being raped by Sandusky. That’s what the leadership at Penn State, apparently up to the University President, thought wasn’t worth bringing to the attention of the police, not even the campus police.

It’s hard to come up with the right words. Appalling. Inexcusable. As a trial lawyer, the word “reckless” jumps out at me.

The Legal Claims That Sexual Abuse Survivors Can Bring In A Lawsuit Against Penn State, The Second Mile and The Employees Involved In The Cover Up


Under Pennsylvania law:

The actor’s conduct is in reckless disregard of the safety of another if he does an act or intentionally fails to do an act which it is his duty to the other to do, knowing or having reason to know of facts which would lead a reasonable man to realize, not only that his conduct creates an unreasonable risk of physical harm to another, but also that such risk is substantially greater than that which is necessary to make his conduct negligent.

That’s from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court opinion Hutchison ex rel. Hutchison v. Luddy, 870 A. 2d 766 (Pa. 2005)(quoting Restatement (Second) of Torts § 500), a clergy abuse which evaluated a jury verdict which included a one-million-dollar punitive damages award against the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown after the jury found:

that the Diocesan Parties had knowledge that Luddy was molesting children; that they were negligent in their retention and supervision of Luddy; that they engaged in a pattern and practice of ignoring allegations of pedophilic behavior among priests; and that their negligence was a substantial factor in bringing about harm to [the plaintiff].

Unsurprisingly, numerous comparisons have been made between the the Catholic church’s handling of repeated child molestation by clergy and Penn State’s handling of Sandusky. (One terrible similarly is that the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown is the diocese for Centre County, where State College is located.) In terms of a civil lawsuit by the victims against Penn State, like with the Annie Le wrongful death case against Yale, in every state I know of employers may be directly liable for the negligent hiring, retention or supervision of an employee who, through a tortious or criminal act, injures a third party. In these cases, victims’ lawyers tend to raise three separate claims:

  • negligence (for failing to protect the children; it’s more analogous to an inadequate security claim than an employment-related claim),
  • negligent supervision (for failing to oversee the abusive priests), and
  • negligent retention (for failing to fire the priests after the first incident).

Unlike with the Annie Le case, though, both the Catholic Church (sometimes including the Holy See, sometimes on the Archdiocese level) and Penn State didn’t have to predict that abuse might happen, they knew it was happening, did nothing to stop it, and took measures to cover it up. Thus, the priest abuse cases — and likely the Penn State cases —also allege:

  • vicarious liability (alleging the Church’s failure to report the priest to the authorities essentially ratified that he had been acting within in the course and scope of his job) and
  • civil conspiracy (for working amongst themselves and with the priest to cover up the abuse).

The latter two are unusual for your typical “employee who committed a crime,” but in the clergy cases, and potentially in the Penn State case, they’ll fit. That’s what Penn State gets for permitting the abuse to continue.

Here, there’s another claim, too, which might be the easiest to prove: negligence per se, in which a plaintiff alleges that the defendant violated a particular statute or regulation that was intended to protect like the plaintiff. That particular statute here would be Pennsylvania’s failure-to-report law, 23 Pa.C.S. Section 6311, which requires:

A person who, in the course of employment, occupation or practice of a profession, comes into contact with children shall report or cause a report to be made in accordance with section 6313 (relating to reporting procedure) when the person has reasonable cause to suspect, on the basis of medical, professional or other training and experience, that a child under the care, supervision, guidance or training of that person or of an agency, institution, organization or other entity with which that person is affiliated is a victim of child abuse, including child abuse by an individual who is not a perpetrator.

That’s the same law Curley and Schultz have been criminally charged with violating. There aren’t too many court opinions on the use of negligence per se claims against individuals and entities that failed to report abuse, but the two federal court opinions on the subject both permitted the claim in similar sexual abuse cases. Valesky v. Roman Archdiocese of Greensburg, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 43857 (W.D. Pa. 2010)(citing Doe v. Liberatore, 478 F. Supp. 2d 742 (M.D. Pa. 2007)).

If Curley and Schultz are found guilty of violating the mandatory reporter law — which isn’t a sure bet, but which seems plausible — that will deal a heavy blow to Penn State’s best defenses, because there’s no doubt Curley and Schultz were acting in the course and scope of their employment when they failed to follow up on and report the abuse, and so Penn State is vicariously liable for their conduct.

Even if Curley and Schultz are found not guilty of violating the reporting law, and even if it appears that Penn State — apart from Sandusky — complied with all criminal laws, that does not insulate them from potential liability for punitive damages. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has already ruled that even compliance with detailed governmental safety standards “does not, standing alone, automatically insulate a defendant from punitive damages.” Phillips v. Cricket Lighters, 584 Pa. 179, 191, 883 A.2d 439, 447 (2005).

Penn State Is Not A State University, But Instead A “State-Related” University, And So Is Almost Certainly Not Immune From Liability Under The Doctrine of Sovereign Immunity


Some lawyers have presumed that Pennsylvania State University, as a public university, is immune from tort liability as an instrumentality of the Commonwealth under 42 Pa.C.S. § 8521. That’s not necessarily the case, however. Temple University, for example, is also a public university and is also part of Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth System of Higher Education, but the Commonwealth Court held that Temple was not immune from tort lawsuits because it remains independent in its operation and is not classified by statute as an “agency” or as exercising “public powers.” Doughty v. City of Philadelphia, 141 Pa.Commonwealth Ct. 659, 596 A.2d 1187 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 1991). That’s in contrast to the universities in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE), which are immune. Poliskiewicz v. East Stroudsburg University, 113 Pa.Cmwlth. 13, 536 A.2d 472, 474 (1988).

[Addendum: In the comments to a followup post I wrote about law professors wrongly asserting Penn State was immune from liability, a smart “Guest” notes that Doughty was fact-specific to Temple University, and that the same analysis might not apply to Penn State. The commentator is right — Doughty is specific to Temple University — but there’s reason to believe Pennsylvania courts would not recognize Penn State as having sovereign immunity. In 1999, for example, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court firmly held “PSU is not an agency of the Commonwealth” for purposes of exemptions from real-estate taxation. Pa. State Univ. v. Derry Twp. Sch. Dist., 557 Pa. 91, 94, 731 A.2d 1272, 1273 (1999). I’ve cut and pasted the pertinent part of their reasoning to the end of that post. There’s every reason to believe the Pennsylvania Supreme Court would apply the exact same reasoning for tort liability.]

Further, as Jeff Anderson argues, if the Penn State coaches and administrators try to go down the sovereign immunity route by claiming they’re state employees and thus immune from state tort claims like negligence, winning that argument — i.e., the argument that they are state actors — can expose them to liability for federal civil rights claims. Civil rights claims are harder to prove at trial than negligence claims (here’s one of my posts discussing the difficulties of winning even an obvious civil rights case), but, on these facts, Penn State is going to have a hard time arguing they and their employees were not “deliberately indifference” to the rights of those children. They knew. They did nothing.

The State Of Limitations Might Have Run For Some Victims, But Not All, Due To Changes In Pennsylvania’s Childhood Sexual Abuse Statute In 2002


There’s a problem with some of the civil cases that might be filed: the statute of limitations.


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