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Declan Sullivan Death to Cost Notre Dame $30+ Million?

Notre Dame University could end up paying around $30 million in compensatory and punitive damages for Declan Sullivan’s death, according to a recent article by Patrick Rishe on Forbes’ “Sports Money” blog.

As reported on Opposing Views last week, Sullivan, the team’s videographer, was filming Notre Dame’s practice session on a 50-foot scissor tower when it collapsed from 50-mph winds that had hit the area that week. He was only 20 years old.

In his piece, Rishe suggests that if found guilty of negligent behavior and if the “degree of fault rests predominately in the university’s lap,” Notre Dame’s compensatory damages could be in the $15 to $20 million range. Further, if punitive damages are assigned, that total could increase by an additional $45 to $60 million.

One of the popular schools of thought on this incident is that Sullivan himself is to blame for the unfortunate accident occurring. Those who make this point bring up Sullivan’s tweets in which he noted how dangerous it felt to be up on the tall tower and how bad the wind was that day. The aforementioned tweets were posted shortly before his death.

However, Rishe quickly counters this idea by saying:

“But just as you could conclude that it would have been reasonable for Mr. Sullivan to voluntarily seek shelter in light of his concerns, you could also argue that it would have been similarly reasonable for any one of the numerous on-site adults (e.g. coaches, administrators, facility staff) to approach Mr. Sullivan and mandate that he cease his elevated videography services due to inclimate weather for safety’s sake.”

When all is said and done, Rishe figures that unless Sullivan either didn’t have permission to be on the tower or ignored someone’s direct order to get down from said tower, the athletics department staff will “shoulder between 80-100% of the blame for this incident.”

On the subject of compensatory and punitive damages, Rishe first introduced the general payout criteria involved:

“(a) expenses incurred by the death of the victim (e.g. funeral, medical, etc.), (b) loss of future earnings anticipated over the victim’s lifetime, and (c) pain, suffering and mental anguish incurred by survivors (in this case, the parents and siblings of Mr. Sullivan).”

Ideally, in order to figure this out specifics such as his major, GPA, test scores and family’s background would all be factored in.

However, because none of that data is publicly available, a general look at Notre Dame graduates and their payscales had to be taken into account. Rishe figured that with the mid-career median salary of a Notre Dame graduate being $121,000, and given a 40-year work career, estimated present value of a Notre Dame grad’s lifetime earnings could be around $1.6 to $2 million in 2010.

Because of how difficult it is to put a value to pain and suffering, Rishe estimated that it combined with Sullivan’s expected earnings could reach the $15 to $20 million range.

As far as punitive damages, according to Indiana law they can only be handed out when “the wrongdoer’s behavior is especially egregious and society deems it necessary to penalize them with excess damages…though the state of Indiana has capped the size of punitive damages at 3 times the amount of the compensatory damage award.”

All in all, after his analysis, Rishe concluded that Notre Dame would likely have to pay up $30 million altogether in mostly compensatory damages with some punitive damages figured in.


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