By Paul Lauricella – Partner to McLaughlin & Lauricella, the nationally recognized Philadelphia law firm specializing in defending the victims of personal injury, sexual abuse and medical malpractice.
We are Often Asked; “Do the Criminal Convictions Affect Civil Cases That May Follow?” The cases of Monsignor William Lynn and Jerry Sandusky being examples in the Pennsylvania court system.
Jerry Sandusky is facing the next 442 years behind bars (but with good behavior, he can be out in 250). Monsignor William Lynn has been found guilty of endangering the welfare of children who were sexually abused by other pedophiles employed by the Archdiocese. These criminal verdicts, coincidentally rendered mere hours apart, do not end the sorry sagas that have implicated such venerable institutions as Penn State and the Philadelphia Archdiocese. Rather, they represent nothing more than the proverbial tip of the proverbial iceberg.
Sandusky Victim’s Lawyers – Monsignor Lynn Victim’s Lawyers
The guilty verdicts prevent each of the respective defendants from contesting their liability in any ensuing actions for civil damages. Because the threshold for establishing guilt in a criminal case (guilt beyond a reasonable doubt) is higher than the threshold in civil suits (responsibility established by a mere fair preponderance of the evidence), a finding of guilt in a criminal case collaterally estops that defendant from contesting his liability for those same acts in any civil proceedings.
Thus, in a civil lawsuit, Msgr. Lynn will not be allowed to dispute that he recklessly endangered the children in question. If Sandusky were to ever be sued personally, he would likewise be prevented from challenging his liability for any of the 45 counts on which he has already been found guilty.
With respect to any suits against the Archdiocese or Penn State, the issues will be a bit different. Penn State, for example, would not be bound by a finding in a criminal case to which it was not a party. However, it is inconceivable that the school would attempt to defend any civil suit by defending Jerry Sandusky (such a defense would be perceived as more of the “head in the sand” mentality that landed Penn State in such hot water in the first place). Rather, Penn State’s likely defense would likely involve distancing itself from Sandusky, a fairly insurmountable challenge considering the extent to which the school and the man have been historically intertwined.
The Philadelphia law firm of McLaughlin & Lauricella defends the rights of victims
Civil liability against Penn State can be predicated upon any number of theories. Was Sandusky acting as an agent of Penn State whose malevolent misdeeds were tacitly ratified by school administration? If so, the school may be vicariously liable, just as any employer is liable for authorized misdeeds of an employee.
Penn State may also be liable on account of its failure to take action so as to prevent harm to third persons who could foreseeably be victimized. If, for example, Penn State officials knew or should have known of Sandusky’s exploits (and given Mr. McQueary’s damning testimony, it certainly appears that the school had the requisite knowledge), the law could certainly impose upon the school a duty to act so as to protect future victims. The school would thus be liable for its failure to report Sandusky to the police or to otherwise alert Second Mile officials with respect to what it knew. This theory becomes even more viable given the evidence that Sandusky used the Second Mile as a source of fresh victims; the defined pool of potential victims is sufficiently circumscribed so as to warrant the imposition of liability even under the most restrictive interpretation of the case law.
Pennsylvania Supreme Court – Prevailing Verdict
There is certainly precedent for such a legal argument. In 1995, I successfully tried a civil action against a psychiatric hospital that failed to properly treat a suicidal patient who subsequently seriously injured three children during a successful suicide attempt. The verdict in that case, Mertz v Temple University Hospital, was appealed all the way to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court which affirmed the imposition of liability. It is part of a long line of precedent which holds that a defendant can, under certain circumstances, owe a duty to unknown third parties who may foreseeably be injured by the misconduct of persons with whom the defendant has a legal relationship. Thus, in Mertz, the hospital was found liable for its failure to protect the children who could have foreseeably been injured by the discharged suicidal psychiatric patient. Similarly, in Troxel v. a.I. duPont, a case in which I wrote an amicus curiae brief on behalf of the Pennsylvania Trial Lawyers Association, the Superior Court concluded that a doctor could be liable to a third party who was infected by the doctor’s improperly counseled patient. Under the circumstances here, Penn State would unquestionably be responsible for its failure to intercede in the face of indisputable evidence that Sandusky was using the school’s shower facilities as his personal pedophile-playboy mansion.
In the case of the Archdiocese, things are even gloomier for the defendant. Msgr. Lynn was acting in the employ of the Archdiocese when he committed the misdeeds for which he was criminally convicted. There is thus a direct path to holding the institution vicariously liable. Even worse for the Archdiocese, Lynn’s criminal defense was, in large part, predicated upon the proposition that Cardinal Bevilacqua himself was actually the person who recklessly endangered the children. The Archdiocese’s legal predicament can only become even more dire once discovery gets underway in the civil case, and the full scope of the Church’s involvement can be revealed.