Could Paterno be held liable for what he knew?

November 10, 2011 8:18:12 PM PST
After Wednesday night's riots, Pennsylvania's governor is pleading with students to avoid violence in their protests of the firing of Penn State college football coach Joe Paterno.

On Wednesday evening, the university's trustees voted to fire Paterno and university president Graham Spanier over how they handled allegations of child sex abuse against former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky. He denies the charges. The university president says he wasn't given any details, and Paterno says, in hindsight, he should have done more. The president also said he agrees with the trustees' decision.

The question now is, could Paterno be held liable for what he knew and didn't do?

A similar case in our area may give us a clue.

While the debate rages on about culpability amidst riots and public statements, Katy attorney Joe Stephens has his mind made up.

"I thought he was a better than that," Stephens said.

Paterno's fall from grace on the heels of the sex abuse scandal that's rocked Penn State has Stephens glued to the details, not only because he's a huge college football fan, but because he tried a case he believes was similar.

"This is not about football, this is about the protection of our children," Stephens said.

On behalf of four pre-teen boys, Stephens and co-counsel Richard Howell sued not only Jason Newsom, a well known Montgomery County wildlife expert who had already been convicted on child sex assault charges, but they also sued his father, Hal Newsom, saying he knew about the abuse for years and did nothing to prevent it.

"That's not just morally wrong, it's legally wrong," Stephens said.

In 2008, a jury agreed and awarded $8 million in damages to the boys, but last year, a court of appeals reversed the decision against the elder Newsom, and earlier this year, the Texas Supreme Court upheld that decision and declined to hear the case.

"What that says to me is if the justices at the Texas Supreme Court were coaches then we ought to fire them," Stephens said.

But Hal Newsom's appellate lawyer, Scott Rothenberg, says the Penn State case and theirs aren't similar at all, adding:

"In Penn State, there is clear and irrefutable evidence given to the grand jury that the athletic director and coaches had direct knowledge that sexual abuse was occurring either by witnessing it or knowing about someone who witnessed it. If there was direct evidence that the adult father (Hal Newsom) knew about the sexual assaults and failed to report them, I believe the outcome would have been different."

Hal Newsom's trial lawyer, Judy Mingledorff, issued the following statement.

"It was understandable that the jurors in the trial court sympathized with the young boys who were harmed by Jason Newsom. But Jason was an adult who was estranged from his father Hal, and Hal had no knowledge that Jason was harming those boys. The only reason Hal was targeted was because Jason was already in prison and there was no one else to sue. Our Supreme Court has affirmed that the law in Texas does not hold parents liable for the criminal conduct of their adult children. Thankfully, that is not the law anywhere."

So the jury's verdict was thrown out.

"It's astounding," Stephens said.

In state college Pennsylvania, no doubt Penn State is preparing for a barrage of lawsuits.

"We're not talking millions of dollars, we're not even tens of millions of dollars -- we're talking perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars," KTRK legal analyst Joel Androphy said.

Androphy says it's likely the university will start settling with alleged victims as soon as possible to prevent costly trials and potentially even costlier judgements.

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