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Can the Penn State victims file civil lawsuits for sexual abuse?

Nearly everyone in Albany has heard about the accusations of sexual abuse coming out of the Penn State football team. The New York Times reports that Jerry Sandusky, the former defensive coordinator, abused eight boys throughout a 15-year period, but the number of victims could be on the rise. The question that many in New York may be asking, however, is whether these victims of sexual assault will be able to hold Penn State, Sandusky and others associated with Penn State football liable for the horrific injuries, damage and psychological trauma they may have suffered.

When a child is sexually assaulted, the traumatic event could have more than just a physical affect on the child. In addition to health care costs, the child may need psychological or psychiatric care, sometimes for the rest of his or her life. A child who is the victim of abuse or his or her parents should not have to carry the burden of paying for the medical care the child will need following abuse. While sexually abusing a child is a criminal offense that can lead to a long prison sentence, only a civil sexual abuse lawsuit will provide parents with the money they need for the child to heal from such a horrendous incident.

The victims of the alleged Sandusky scandal will have to wait until after the criminal trial before they can start to pursue their civil claims. During that time, it is possible that even more victims may emerge as more is learned about Sandusky and his suspected past.

The road to a courtroom victory will not be easy. The victims may not be able to sue Penn State because of a legal doctrine called sovereign immunity. This doctrine protects the state and its institutions and employees from most civil lawsuits, but there is hope. Because Penn State is organized differently than most other state universities, its status as a state-sponsored institution could mean it is not protected by sovereign immunity.

Source: The New York Times, "Penn State Officials, Including Paterno, Could Face Civil Lawsuits," Bill Pennington, Nov. 11, 2011

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