Q&A: Valuing Sexual Abuse Claims Not Simple

September 20, 2012

Penn State already faces four lawsuits over the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal, and at least 20 people with potential claims have already surfaced. It’s unclear how many will press claims against Penn State or whether more will surface.

After Sandusky’s conviction on 45 child sexual abuse counts in June, the university signaled it hoped to settle with the victims, but lawyers say they have had minimal contact so far with the university.

Some questions and answers about how such settlements come about and what has happened in similar cases:

What Factors Determine the “Value” of a Child Sexual Abuse Claim?

They include the age of the child victim, the length of abuse, the types of acts, where they took place and any evidence that the crimes have affected the victim emotionally, psychologically, professionally or in terms of their relationships.

How Do Group Settlements Usually Proceed?

There are many different approaches, but typically defendants would propose how much money they are willing to pay and negotiate with the victims’ lawyers over that amount. After that, a mediator or arbitrator may be brought in to split up the money.

The process can embitter victims if they feel their experiences are being weighed against each other. Albany Law School professor Timothy D. Lytton, author of the book “Holding Bishops Accountable,” says the analysis can come down to something like “penetration is worse than fondling, fondling is worse than being shown pornography, repeated penetration over a long period of time is worse than a single event.”

Is There Enough Information to Come Up With a Sense of the Value of the Sandusky Cases?

Much more would have to be known about what occurred and about the victims. The Sandusky trial concerned 10 victims, including eight who testified. But even those young men didn’t provide the full picture, as their testimony focused on the specific crimes, not the totality of their lives.

How Have Similar Cases Been Resolved?

The biggest example is the Roman Catholic church, which has settled the vast majority of cases and taken only a few to trial. The group bishopaccountability.org has compiled a large amount of data but says its numbers are far from comprehensive. It says the largest settlement has been more than $5 million, and the amounts tend to be larger in big cities, smaller in rural areas.

In 2007, jurors ruled against the Roman Catholic diocese of Rockville Centre, N.Y., and issued a $11.4 million verdict for attacks on a boy and girl by a youth music minister that included fondling, oral sex and intercourse.

Two years ago, Oregon jurors awarded a man nearly $20 million from the Boy Scouts after he was repeatedly fondled by an assistant Scoutmaster.

In what may have been a record verdict, jurors in Oakland, Calif., in June awarded $7 million in compensatory damages and $21 million in punitive damages to a woman who said the Jehovah’s Witnesses allowed an adult to molest her as a child in the mid-1990s.

How Much Money Does Penn State Have?

The university has a $4.3 billion operating budget, about $9.7 billion in assets and a roughly $1.8 billion endowment. It has said its insurance policies should cover claims against its officers and employees, and it has the capacity to draw more money, if needed, from funds not related to tuition, donations or taxpayer revenues. The school and its insurer, Blue Bell-based Pennsylvania Manufacturers’ Association Insurance Co., are in court over coverage for Sandusky-related claims.

What’s the Bottom Line?

Although there are many variables, it’s not unreasonable for Sandusky’s victims to value their claims in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, up to a few million. Legal experts say the more egregious examples have the potential to reap jury verdicts beyond that.

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