Joe Paterno may face civil lawsuits as a result of the Penn State sexual abuse scandal, and if that happens, one attorney said Paterno's legal representatives and other defendants could try to use what the attorney considers a flaw in Pennsylvania state law that limits the rights of victims.
Plaintiffs currently over the age of 20 can pursue lawsuits only in cases of sexual abuse that involved "forcible compulsion." That definition includes rape, but not always lesser forms of physical contact, said Shanin Specter, a litigator in Philadelphia whose firm has been contacted by the family of one of the alleged victims.
That loophole could present a challenge for some of the potential plaintiffs, Specter said. Legal teams for Paterno and any other defendants could argue that the boys had the choice of being touched inappropriately by former Nittany Lions assistant Jerry Sandusky.
"But that's not going to stop us from filing suit," said Specter, noting that most courts have interpreted the law to include other forms of compulsion such as psychological compulsion.
Specter said his firm will meet with the young man and his mother early next week to begin exploring legal options. He said he was contacted last week by the mother, whose son is one of eight alleged victims listed in the grand jury presentment against Sandusky.
"There's no doubt Joe Paterno will be sued and it will be left up to the discovery process to determine his liability," Specter said. "There are a lot of victims who suffered damages, and I expect that some number of defendants will be obligated to pay a lot of money."
Specter said he expects all of the men cited in the grand jury presentment will face lawsuits for any role they played in not reporting the alleged crimes to authorities. In addition to charges against Sandusky, attorney general Linda Kelly is pursuing criminal charges against former athletic director Tim Curley and university administrator Gary Schultz for their roles in the alleged cover-up.
Paterno, who is not facing criminal charges, notified Curley and Schultz about a 2002 incident reported to him by then-graduate assistant Mike McQueary. On Wednesday, before losing his job, the 84-year-old coach expressed his sorrow for the children who were allegedly harmed, saying in a statement, "This is a tragedy. It is one of the great sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more."
Since then, Paterno has hired J. Sedgwick Sollers, a high-profile Washington defense lawyer. Scott Paterno, one of Paterno's sons, said his father's "desire is for the truth to be uncovered and he will work with his lawyers to that end."
Specter predicts the 67-year old Sandusky, who has denied the charges, will spend the rest of his life behind bars.
"He'll be in prison into his 80s, if he ever gets out," he said.
The son of former Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, Specter successfully sued LaSalle University in Philadelphia for its handling of a concussion suffered by former player Preston Plevretes, who ended up in a wheelchair due to a subsequent, debilitating head injury. After the suit was settled for $7.5 million in 2009, the NCAA adopted new concussion management standards.
Tom Farrey is a reporter with Outside the Lines. He can be reached at email@example.com.