Sovereign immunity is the legal principle that government is immune from lawsuits or other legal actions except where the government consents to them. Prior to 1912, the state of Ohio and its employees were protected by sovereign immunity and could not be held liable for negligent acts nor be sued for money damages.
In 1912, by approval of the Ohio voters, an amendment was added to the Ohio Constitution that "Suits may be brought against the state, in such courts and in such manner as may be provided by law." (Article I, § 16 of the Ohio Constitution)
With the new amendment, a person who claimed to have been damaged by the state of Ohio could seek money but was required to do so from the legislative branch in the form of a special bill. These bills – like all other bills - were contingent upon legislative and executive approval or disapproval. In other words, claims against the state were not immune from the political process.
These special bills were rare, and it was even rarer that they passed. If it did pass, the bill would typically do one of the following:
However, in 1917 the Ohio Supreme Court determined in Raudabaugh v. State that the constitutional amendment was not self-executing - meaning that legislation or law was required. Thus, the state was still protected by sovereign immunity until such time as the legislature enacted a statute expressly granting consent to sue.
That same year the General Assembly responded to Raudabaugh by creating the Sundry Claims Board and empowering it to hear and approve claims against the state.
The Sundry Claims Board consisted of five members:
The only requirements for submitting a claim to the Board were that the claim be submitted on the designated form and that the claim be specific enough for the Board to determine what the alleged wrong was and which state agency or agencies were implicated. The Board held hearings, and each party was given the opportunity to argue their case, call witnesses and cross-examine the opposing party’s witnesses. Claimants were not required to, and most often did not have, an attorney; but the state was always represented by the Attorney General.
The Board had the authority to approve or disapprove the payment of claims. Claims for $1,000 or less would be paid by the auditor of state. Claims in excess of $1,000 became part of the annual Sundry Claims appropriation bill. The bill included a brief summary of each claim and was presented to the legislature for approval. Hearings would then be held in both houses and claimants often had to testify in support of their claim. The legislative committees had the power to make changes in the amount of the awards, increasing some, decreasing or totally eliminating others.
There were inherent conflicts of interest and limitations with the Sundry Claims Board system. All of the Board members were in some respect political: They were elected officials. Four of the five members were charged with protecting the state treasury. And the Attorney General, whose office represented the state's interest before the Sundry Claims Board, simultaneously served on the Sundry Claims Board. Being an administrative body, the state lacked equal protection before the Board in the sense that it could not make counter-claims or cross-claims against claimants and third parties who might otherwise be liable.
Realizing these and other defects in the Sundry Claims process, the legislature put forth the Court of Claims Act.
In 1975 with the passage of the Court of Claims Act by the General Assembly, Ohio consented to be sued and have its liability determined in the newly established Court of Claims. Under the Act and with a few exceptions, the same rules of law apply in suits against the state as in suits between private parties.
In 1976, the General Assembly enacted the Crime Victims Compensation Act and its administration was assigned to the Court of Claims. Through the Crime Victims Compensation Program, individuals suffering personal injury as the result of criminal conduct were eligible to apply for compensation from the state.
From 1976 until July 1, 2000, the Court of Claims handled all claims for compensation for the Victims of Crime Compensation Program. The Ohio Attorney General would investigate the claim and file a finding of fact and recommendation to the Court. The Court would then render a decision. If a claimant disagreed with that initial decision, the claimant could appeal first to a panel of commissioners and, finally, to a judge of the Court of Claims.
After July 1, 2000, the Victims of Crime Compensation Program underwent a transformation with the passage of Am. Sub. S.B. 153 of the 123rd General Assembly. Pursuant to that legislation, the responsibility for administering the Victims of Crime Compensation Program was transferred from the Court of Claims to the Ohio Attorney General. The transfer significantly changed the role that the Court plays in these cases. Whereas before, the Court rendered the initial decisions on compensation cases and was responsible for disbursing reparation awards, these responsibilities were transferred to the Ohio Attorney General. The Court, however, still maintains jurisdiction over the appellate process.