$60M settlement could help PSU prevent trials

| Saturday, July 20, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

A $60 million payout from Penn State University can't erase the sins of Jerry Sandusky, but it could help the embattled school prevent expensive civil trials and devastating new revelations about the convicted pedophile, lawyers said Friday.

“What's the No. 1 rule in risk management? Contain the problem,” said Kelly Clark, a Portland, Ore., trial attorney who has represented about 400 abuse victims and follows the Sandusky case. “Penn State, as a matter of public relations, has to deal with these cases. They have to be seen as taking them seriously and not getting in and out for peanuts.”

University trustees this month approved $60 million as a maximum combined settlement for some of the 31 claimants who alleged abuse by Sandusky, 69, a former assistant football coach at the school. Three former Penn State administrators are fighting criminal charges that they helped conceal his crimes.

Abuse experts said $60 million might be relatively low given the number of claimants who emerged since a jury in June 2012 convicted Sandusky of abusing 10 boys over 15 years. Yet it appears to be the largest settlement arising from violent crimes at U.S. colleges and universities, according to campus safety advocates.

“You're looking at a case unlike anything else in the history of higher education, and you're looking at fallout unlike anything else in the history of higher education as a result,” said S. Daniel Carter, director of the 32 National Campus Safety Initiative at the nonprofit VTV Family Outreach Foundation. The security-advocacy group formed after the April 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech that killed 32 people.

Many of their families and 18 survivors won an $11 million settlement in June 2008. A panel found quicker action by Virginia Tech officials might have contained the bloodshed.

Two years earlier, a sexual assault and homicide at Eastern Michigan University led to a reported civil settlement of $2.5 million with the victim's family and estate. Investigators found the school violated the Clery Act, which says that colleges supported with federal funds must disclose campus crimes promptly.

The Sandusky scandal brought Penn State under similar scrutiny, with federal reviewers examining whether the school met reporting requirements when Sandusky was abusing boys. The U.S. Department of Education has yet to release findings.

In the meantime, legal observers said Penn State might settle even weak claims to keep complainants from demanding public trials and pulling more evidence into the limelight. A spokesman and an attorney for the university declined to comment.

“They're so much at gunpoint in these cases, I don't see how they're going to contest a whole lot,” said Gary J. Ogg, a personal-injury lawyer based Downtown. “All they need is one person to pull the trigger, and they'll be faced with a full-blown trial. I would guess their goal is not to be tried for any of these.”

Ogg and Clark said claimants typically would be asked for evidence of psychological or physical injuries. Negotiators would want to know if a claimant was “in the right time, place and circumstance” to be a victim, Clark said. He said evidence of a direct connection — such as a photo with the predator, or a signed birthday card — would be helpful, too.

A claimant in some cases might undergo a psychological evaluation, Clark said.

“Money justice is not pretty, and it seems coarse and callous, and it brings out the cynic in observers,” he said. “But when you're talking to a person about what happened to them as a child, oftentimes, it's the only justice available to them. It's vindication.”

State prosecutors said Sandusky often abused boys on Penn State grounds. One of his attorneys, Karl Rominger, said he has not talked with Sandusky about the claims against the university.

But Penn State ought to defend itself, Rominger said. Sandusky, serving a 30- to 60-year state prison sentence in Waynesburg, maintained he is innocent.

“Any time there's a high-profile case, you can expect lots of people to assert involvement in the matter,” Rominger said. “The merits of those claims are unknown to me.”

Adam Smeltz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5676 or asmeltz@tribweb.com.

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