The Philadelphia Personal Injury Law Blog

Freeh Report on PSU Sandusky Cover-Up: Grounds for Civil Action?

The long awaited Freeh Report on PSU's cover-up of Sandusky's sexual abuse of children was released Thursday morning after much anticipation. The report concluded what many had already thought, that Penn State officials, including the beloved Joe Paterno, had discussed reports of Sandusky's abuse and decided not to contact authorities, reports the Philadelphia Inquirer.

The report states exactly when and where University President Graham Spanier, VP of Finance Gary Schultz, Athletic Director Timothy Curley and Coach Paterno each learned of Sandusky's actions. Even though each official knew of Sandusky's 1998 abuse allegation, they allowed him to retire and have full access to the University, its facilities, and its vaunted football program, according to the Inquirer.

While there are criminal charges pending for Schultz and Curley for their respective failures to report allegations of child abuse under Pennsylvania law, the University’s actions (or lack thereof) have opened it up to potential civil liability from the victims.

Any recovery from Penn State would have some basis in the theory of negligence. Negligence requires there to be a duty of care owed to the victim; a breach of that duty; and damage caused directly by that breach.

Premises Liability

One type of claim based in negligence is called premises liability. This claim is based on idea that a property owner or occupier has a duty to those that are on the property. This duty varies based on the reason the victim is on the property.

If the victim is trespassing, there is usually no duty owed. However, if the victim was invited or allowed on the property, then there is usually a duty to warn or protect from foreseeable danger.

Here, Sandusky’s victims can argue that no matter if they were only allowed or if they were invited onto Penn State property that those in control of the property (namely University officials) had a duty to warn children of the danger of Jerry Sandusky. A breach of this duty is likely to be proven by the knowledge of Sandusky’s actions and yet the allowance of Sandusky to use the Penn State campus and football team to continue his actions.

Negligence Per Se

Another type of negligence claim is based on the violation of a public safety law that caused harm to a person that the law is supposed to protect. For example, if you broke the speed limit and hurt someone in another car because of your speed, you would be negligent per se.

Here, failure to report child abuse is a public safety law in Pennsylvania. The victims that came after the first would be able to argue that they were meant to be protected by this law. If this were the case, then those that knew about Sandusky’s earlier abuse could be held liable.

One potential weakness to this type of case is the issue of foreseeability. This means that someone should be able to predict that a harm will occur if nothing is done. Of course the repetitive abuse seems foreseeable in hindsight, but it would be for a jury at trial to decide whether it was predictable at the time.

Hopefully this entire PSU Sandusky Cover-Up discovered in the Freeh Report will help other organizations realize that if there is something illegal going on that it needs to stop and the authorities need to be alerted, because it will be found out.

It always is.

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