Many members of our society have become chagrined, disillusioned and even outraged at the extent of the litigious nature of our culture. People have come to pessimistically believe that most lawsuits are spuriously filed in order for economic gain, as well as momentary fame and notoriety. These people point their fingers at high-profile attorneys such as Gloria Allred and the late Johnnie Cochran , or at cases like the infamous McDonald’s hot-coffee case, to stress that lawsuits are out-of-control, disingenuous and frivolous .
However, lawsuits are a necessary evil in order to police individual perpetrating behavior, and also blow the whistle on institutions which often turn a blind eye to the negligent, and sometimes criminal, actions of its paid staff.
The Pennsylvania State University (Penn State) debacle highlights the need for such lawsuits in the face of inaction or prolonged/excessive processing by the institution in question.
You will be hard pressed to find anyone who has not heard a snippet or two about the sex-abuse scandal current brewing at Penn State. Last week, long-time legend and Penn State icon, Joe Paterno, was fired for his alleged connection to, and/or alleged knowledge of, the alleged incidents of child sexual assault. The facts are still a bit blurry to someone like myself, who would immediately report any kind of untoward behavior directed at or engaged with children.
Here are the factual highlights of the issues at hand:
- As early as 1998, and perhaps earlier, members of Penn State and the community at large started to voice concerns regarding the behavior of defensive coordinator, Jerry Sandusky. Sandusky had been hired by the university as a defensive line coach in 1969. In 1977, he founded a charitable organization, The Second Mile, which helped thousands of disadvantaged kids in the area, but also gave Sandusky immediate access to those same vulnerable children. One child told his mother of some suspect behavior – she went to the campus police with the details. They investigated; however, no charges were filed.
- County district attorney Ray Gricar was aware of the allegations and the subsequent investigation but did not press charges.
- In 2000 and 2002, Penn State staff members witness and report alleged sexual acts allegedly committed by Sandusky on children. Graduate assistant, Mike McQueary is one of those witness; in 2002, he tells the details to Joe Paterno, Penn State football coach. (who, as of today, has been with Penn State for 46 years). Paterno in turn tells Penn State athletic director Tim Curley, who meets with McQueary and includes senior vice president for finance and business Gary Schultz in these discussions.
- “Curley and Schultz never report the incident to authorities.”
- An investigation into Sandusky’s behavior is instituted by Pennsylvania attorney general Tom Corbett; however, Sandusky is not arrested until November 5, 2011, at which time he is charged with 40 criminal accounts.
- “Curley and Schultz are charged with perjury and failure to report the allegations.”
- According to one news source, Sandusky and Schultz will still be receiving their pensions from the school, despite criminal allegations.
- Paterno is fired on November 9, 2011; on November 11, 2011, McQueary is placed on administrative leave (he still works for the university as a receivers football coach).
- In an interview with NBC’s Bob Costas on Monday, November 14, 2011, Sandusky denied the charges against him. He claimed he just “horsed around” (this coming from a 67-year-old man) with the boys without sexual contact and that he is not sexually attracted to young boys. This is reminiscent of the late Michael Jackson and his penchant for having young boys sleep in bed with him. Jackson was acquitted of the charges against him.
In my opinion, the Penn State sex-abuse scandal fortifies the need for continuing lawsuits in the face of institutional silence, cohesiveness and inaction for the following reasons:
- Generally speaking, lawsuits make the issues known to the public at large, and to members and governing bodies of the institutions, when such lawsuits are not initially settled without filing the paperwork. This in turn may save, or serve as a warning to, potential future victims of predatory behavior and conspiratorial silence. Once the lawsuit is filed, the press has access to the allegations in the complaint. Even if a settlement is reached after filing, and a confidentiality agreement is signed by the plaintiff, the public, the press and the institution have knowledge of the issue(s);
- Lawsuits serve as a punishment/correction. They financially punish the wrongdoers and their complicit, often silent, deep-pocketed cohorts (the organizations or institutions that allow the behavior to flourish). Civil lawsuits serve as forced restitution to victims for the bad behavior and ineffective self policing of individuals and their corresponding institutions;
- Lawsuits often lay the groundwork for necessary changes in institutional or organizational policy, including hiring practices, supervision and other pertinent guidelines – lawsuits are the reason that many organizations have policy manuals and employee handbooks;
- Lawsuits can, but do not always, serve as a proactive policing mechanism to keep potential perpetrators in line and institutions ever aware and vigilant in the face of prospective inappropriate behavior by its members. Unfortunately, given the timeline of the Penn State allegations, neither the alleged perpetrator nor the institution were dissuaded in this manner.
The upside to litigation is that it encourages institutions, including but certainly not limited to colleges and university, to ferret out (sometimes eventually and drawn out due to due-process concerns) those wrong doers in order to save the university from further lawsuits and bad press.
Unfortunately, the Penn State debacle has dragged on endlessly with an unknown number of alleged victims. According to the timelines provided by various news sources, the university did not promptly take action to ensure that some of its members (i.e. Sandusky) did not have immediate, direct and continuing contact with children after allegations initially surfaced. Sandusky did not retire from “ day-to-day involvement with The Second Mile” until September, 2010 – long after allegations had been made and witnesses to his alleged behavior had surfaced.
Say what you will about lawsuits, but in the face of criminal behavior by perpetrators who abuse their power and status within organizations and institutions, they continue to be necessary.
Copyright© 2011-2012 by Brenda L. Hardy. All rights reserved. The material contained within these pages is the sole property of Brenda L. Hardy. All rights to copy, reproduce, publish or alter this material in any way are reserved. Reproduction of any kind is expressly prohibited without prior written consent.