Joe Paterno's legendary coaching career at Penn State was cut short Wednesday by the revelations related to the arrest of former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky, charged with child sex abuse. And Paterno, 84, could be vulnerable to civil litigation and criminal charges.
"It would be a mistake for anybody to assume that Paterno is out of the woods from a civil standpoint and probably from a criminal standpoint as well," said Wil Florin, a Palm Harbor attorney who represented former USF football coach Jim Leavitt in his wrongful termination suit against the school last year.
"You have a local grand jury that's still in session and an attorney general who was very specific in terms of how she parses her language (saying Paterno and other Penn State administrators) are not targets at this time."
Florin compared Penn State's position to what the Roman Catholic Church faced in civil suits from the families of child victims of sexual abuse by priests and other church leaders. Florin said the legal vulnerability comes from RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) laws. They were intended for cases involving organized crime but have been interpreted to include any group that conspires to allow illegal activity to occur.
"Penn State has liability, and all those individuals — the vice president, the athletic director, the president, Paterno — they all could find themselves in a RICO lawsuit," Florin said.
"What happened with the Catholic Church is pretty clear. They knew what was going on, and in order to protect the institution, they kept it quiet. It may have been to protect individuals, but probably the bigger part of it was to protect the reputation of the institution. And that looks like that's what's going on here."
Other legal experts have addressed the possible criminal aspects of Paterno and other Penn State officials being aware a crime might have been committed and not notifying police. Michael McCann, a sports law professor at Vermont, wrote on SI.com that Paterno's testimony before a grand jury could leave him open to perjury charges.
"While Paterno has, thus far, escaped these criminal charges, his statements and behavior suggest that he remains vulnerable to them," McCann wrote. "That is particularly evident when considering troubling inconsistencies between Paterno's testimony to the grand jury that investigated Sandusky and the testimony of Penn State assistant Mike McQueary."
As a graduate assistant in 2002, McQueary told Paterno of seeing Sandusky in the showers with a 10-year-old boy.
Paterno is clear from obstruction charges due to statute of limitations laws in Pennsylvania. But those wouldn't exempt him from perjury charges because his grand jury testimony took place within the past year, McCann wrote. New victims and witnesses could surface, and McCann wrote Penn State officials facing charges could implicate others in exchange for favorable treatment at sentencing.
Florin said the threat of litigation plays a role in swift decisions to remove university officials from their jobs. The university's Board of Trustees, which ousted Paterno on Wednesday night, is now expected to know everything the public knows, and to have allowed Paterno to continue to work in his job implies a toleration of his actions, Florin said.
Paterno had announced he would retire at the end of the season. Before the trustees' announcement Wednesday night that he was done coaching, Florin believed Paterno wouldn't take the field Saturday.
"I can't imagine any lawyers that are advising Penn State telling them anything other than 'These guys have to go,' " he said.
"It would be a mistake for anybody to assume that Paterno is out of the woods from a civil standpoint and probably from a criminal standpoint as well."
Wil Florin, Palm Harbor attorney who represented ex-USF football coach Jim Leavitt in his lawsuit against the school