The Penn State sexual abuse case reminds us of a similar case we handled a few years ago involving a local coach who engaged in a pattern of sexual abuse with young boys on his team. In that case, as in the Penn State situation, we argued successfully that the school had prior knowledge of the coach's conduct and that they looked the other way and continued to allow him to have contact with young boys.
Undoubtedly, the sexual abuse scandal at Penn State will expose the University to a likely onslaught of civil lawsuits. Any time people have knowledge of sexual abuse being committed by a person, they have an obligation to control that person's activity and interaction with children, particularly when that interaction takes place on school property or is facilitated by the child abuser's standing at the University.
In the Penn State cases, some of the abuse incidents happened on Penn State property or during Penn State trips. Even the incidents that happened outside of Penn State activities may expose the school to liability because the perpetrator, Jerry Sandusky, was still arguably an employee or representative of the University even after he resigned as a coach in 1999.
The school could be responsible not only for damages for the physical harm and pain and suffering caused to the victims, but they could also be on the hook for punitive damages if a jury was to conclude that their conduct was outrageous. While the school no doubt has liability insurance, they may end up paying out of their own pocket as well for the harm in these cases. Each of these cases will have different facts, but the common theme in all of them will be that Penn State failed to control activity on their premises or failed to control the activity of one their employees.