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Sandusky case: As Penn State girds for civil suits, it faces a dilemma

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Then there’s the growing number of plaintiffs expected to step forward. The Associated Press reports that there may already be as many as 20 victims. In Pennsylvania, the statute of limitations in child abuse cases was extended in 2007, giving the victim until his or her 50th birthday to file charges.

Because the alleged abuse in the Penn State scandal is reported to have taken place between 1994 and 2009, the possibility of many more potential plaintiffs stepping forward is likely. Not only will more plaintiffs make it more difficult to defend, the defense will have a hard time providing alibis for accusations that took place so far in the past.

And there’s also the potential problem of phantom, or fraudulent, claims.

“Any guy within spitting distance of Penn State … can make a claim against the university,” Mr. Pattis says. “How can you defend yourself against that?”

One strategy for rebutting phantom claims is for Penn State to map a timeline for its athletic department that tracks the 15 years Mr. Sandusky is alleged to have been abusing boys. If the university can account for the movements of everyone rotating through the department during that time, it may find it easier to refute plaintiff testimony.

Another strategy the university might consider presents officials with perhaps their most daunting dilemma: researching whether or not the university can claim sovereign immunity, a loophole in the law that prevents suing a state entity that relies primarily on public funds. The university’s board of trustees is free to make a policy decision to invoke sovereign immunity or not.

While invoking immunity is certainly within the university’s rights, it would be politically rash to do so. Officials are already showing remorse and expressing a commitment to rectify the university’s moral failures, which will be contradicted if it puts up any roadblocks for plaintiffs.

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