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Seifert v. Standard Paving Co.

OPINION FILED SEPTEMBER 20, 1976.

DIANE M. SEIFERT, APPELLEE,

v.

STANDARD PAVING CO. ET AL. — (THE STATE OF ILLINOIS, APPELLANT.)



Appeal from the Appellate Court for the First District; heard in that court on appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County; the Hon. Abraham Brussell, Judge, presiding.

MR. CHIEF JUSTICE WARD DELIVERED THE OPINION OF THE COURT:

This appeal concerns six separate negligence actions brought in the circuit court of Cook County in which the State of Illinois was named as a defendant. The State filed a motion in each case to dismiss the complaint on the ground that persons injured through the negligence of agents or employees of the State can seek relief only in the Court of Claims. The trial court denied the motions and held that the Court of Claims Act (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1973, ch. 37, par. 439.1 through 439.24-9; Ill. Rev. Stat. 1973, ch. 127, par. 801) violated the equal protection and due process clauses of both the United States (U.S. Const., amend. XIV) and the Illinois (Ill. Const. 1970, art. I, sec. 2) constitutions. The court, under Rule 308(a) (58 Ill.2d R. 308(a)), found that its orders involved "questions of law as to which there is substantial ground for difference of opinion," and that an immediate appeal might "advance the ultimate termination of the litigation." The appellate court granted the State's petition for leave to appeal, and the six cases were consolidated for argument and decision. The appeal was later transferred to this court under our Rule 302(b) (58 Ill.2d R. 302(b)).

The plaintiffs contend that persons injured by negligence of employees or agents of the State are denied equal protection of the laws in that they are confined for redress to the Court of Claims, while persons injured by the negligence of persons other than the State are allowed to bring suit in a circuit court. They urge here that there is no rational basis for distinguishing between these two classes of injured people and point out that under the Court of Claims Act an injured party does not have a right to a jury trial, or a right to appeal from a decision of the Court of Claims and any recovery is limited to $100,000.

It was after the trial court here had concluded that the Court of Claims Act violated the equal protection and due process clauses of the constitutions that this court in Williams v. Medical Center Com., 60 Ill.2d 389, rejected contentions similar to those the plaintiffs make. The plaintiffs, however, claim that Williams does not have a foreclosing effect on their position and contend that in Williams this court decided only that section 4 of article XIII of the Constitution of 1970 ("Except as the General Assembly may provide by law, sovereign immunity in this State is abolished") did not deny equal protection of the laws to persons injured by negligence attributable to the State. They say their position is that the procedure adopted by the State under the Court of Claims Act for the consideration and allowance of claims of injured persons violates the equal protection clauses of both the Illinois and United States constitutions.

What this court did hold in Williams was that a State medical commission was an arm of the State and that an action in tort against it was precluded by the statute providing (as the Constitution of 1970 authorizes) that the State shall never be made a defendant or a party in any court except as is provided for in the Court of Claims Act. (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1973, ch. 127, par. 801.) The court there rejected the contention that this immunity was invalid under the equal protection clauses of the constitutions of the United States and of Illinois. The court said in part:

"The plaintiff also contends, however, that even though the immunity of the Commission from an action of this kind is thus authorized, that immunity is invalid under the equal protection clauses of the constitutions of Illinois and of the United States. At the outset of our discussion of this contention, we wish to emphasize that we are not concerned with the wisdom of section 4 of article XIII of the Constitution of 1970 or of the statutes here involved. Our views with respect to the immunity of local governmental units were stated in Molitor v. Kaneland Community Unit District No. 302 (1959), 18 Ill.2d 11, Harvey v. Clyde Park District (1964), 32 Ill.2d 60, and many other opinions. See Sweney Gasoline & Oil Co. v. Toledo Peoria & Western R.R. Co. (1969), 42 Ill.2d 265; Hutchings v. Kraject (1966), 34 Ill.2d 379; Lorton v. Brown County Community Unit School District No. 1 (1966), 35 Ill.2d 362.

Those decisions, however, did not involve the sovereign immunity of the State or the validity of the Court of Claims Act, questions which were thoroughly threshed out in the recent constitutional convention. The present language of section 4 of article XIII — `Except as the General Assembly may provide by law, sovereign immunity in this State is abolished' — was adopted only after the defeat of an amendment which would have limited the power of the General Assembly to the provision of a special forum, and would have eliminated its authority to restrict the right of trial by jury and to impose time limitations and limitations upon the amount of recovery. (5 Record of Proceedings, Sixth Illinois Constitutional Convention 3948-3952.) In our opinion the contention of the plaintiff is without merit. A constitutional grant of immunity to a sovereign government has never, so far as we are aware, been held to be an arbitrary classification which violates equal protection." 60 Ill.2d 389, 394-95.

There is no doubt the law need not treat all persons alike for all purposes. Illustrating this and also the requirement for a proper classification we said in Davis v. Commonwealth Edison Co., 61 Ill.2d 494, 497:

"There is no question that the legislature may establish classifications, for `perfect uniformity of treatment of all persons is neither practical nor desirable.' [Citation.] A classification, however, cannot be arbitrary or unreasonable. It must be based on a rational difference of condition or situation existing in the persons or the objects upon which the classification rests. [Citations.]"

It is clear in Williams that a "constitutional grant of immunity to a sovereign government" does not create an arbitrary classification for purposes of the equal protection clause. (60 Ill.2d 389, 394-95.) Thus, the General Assembly may classify or distinguish between persons injured by agents and employees of the State and persons injured by others. We think it obvious, therefore, that the State may establish a body and procedure to consider claims which may be submitted by injured persons without any violation of the equal protection clauses of the Constitution of the United States or the Constitution of Illinois. Further, as will be shown, we consider the procedures the legislature did provide do not offend constitutional guaranties.

Before turning to these complaints of the plaintiffs as to certain procedures of the Court of Claims Act, we will consider an equal protection question which, though not formally an issue or point in their brief, is raised in several places. In Illinois, units of local government may be held liable in most instances (see, e.g., Arnolt v. City of Highland Park, 52 Ill.2d 27) for tortious acts of their agents. An injured party may proceed against the local governmental body in the circuit court with the right to jury trial, the right to appeal and the right to full compensation for his damages. (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1975, ch. 85, pars. 1-101 through 9-107.) The plaintiffs say that there is no basis for distinguishing between persons injured by the State and persons injured by units of local government, citing Harvey v. Clyde Park District, 32 Ill.2d 60, in support of their position. They say: "All of these rights [e.g., right to a jury trial] are denied plaintiffs, not because tortious acts of the governmental functions are different, but solely because the governmental agent is denominated a State agent rather than that of a municipality or a park district or a county, or what have you." We consider, however, that there is a rational basis for separately classifying those injured by agents or employees of the State and the classification does not deny the plaintiffs equal protection of the law.

Contentions similar to those made by the plaintiffs have recently been rejected in three other jurisdictions. (Brown v. Wichita State University (1976), 219 Kan. 2, 547 P.2d 1015; Sousa v. State (1975), 115 N.H. 340, 341 A.2d 282; Krause v. State (1972), 31 Ohio St.2d 132, 285 N.E.2d 736, 60 Ohio Op.2d 100.) The Supreme Court of Kansas in Carroll v. Kittle (1969), 203 Kan. 841, 457 P.2d 21, abolished its judicially created doctrine of governmental immunity for negligence. Subsequently, the Kansas legislature enacted statutes which prohibited suits against the State but which left units of local government open to be sued and held liable for negligence. (Kan. Stat. Ann. sec. 46-901 et seq.) The court in Brown was called upon to determine whether these statutes denied equal protection of the laws by "discriminating between the various levels of governmental tort-feasors by imposing liability based on the unit of government involved." (219 Kan. 2, ___, 547 P.2d 1015, 1025.) The court in upholding the legislation said:

"But withholding a legal remedy for persons injured by the state, while allowing remedy for a non-governmental tortious activity, or a municipal government's tortious activity, is not discriminatory governmental action. ...


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