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It has long been said, "You can't fight City Hall."

But in the case of an individual taking on the State of Arkansas in a lawsuit or other civil endeavor to get the state or its subdivisions to admit fault and pay out damages -- well, that too, has been a losing proposition in legal and civil matters.

Even with a recent 5-2 ruling from the state's highest court, one cannot sue the state of Arkansas -- even over back wages and overtime -- in this most recent case focus.

Arkansas is one of only three states, joining Alabama and West Virginia, with sovereign immunity stated in the state's Constitution.

That does not mean, however, in Arkansas, that the state cannot be found at fault and claims paid out to citizens harmed by the state.

Years ago, as a fledgling cub reporter for the Pine Bluff Commercial, I was assigned to cover a local citizen who had a claim pending at the state claim's commission up in Little Rock. The Claims Commission, back then a three-person panel, was appointed by the governor to serve as a "referee" of sorts between the state and claims against the state.

The Claims Commission was augmented by a staff of only a few state employees and one lawyer, who sort of ran the Claims Commission, in a tiny office near the state capitol.

The assignment that day at the Claims Commission was to cover a hearing requested from the attorney of a young man who was a ward of the state at an area reform school (now called a juvenile detention center) where the ward was injured. The young boy, who testified at the hearing, working in the kitchen of the Reform School, was injured in an accident. The lad was seeking monetary damages for his injury on state property and while doing a task assigned to him by the state supervisor.

The boy had lost three fingers on his right hand, caught in a sausage-mill grinder in the kitchen. He and his attorney were seeking about $7,000, as best I can recall for his now physical deformity.

It was only one of the three or four items on the agenda that day for the Commission. The mood was rather somber and matter of fact as the cases unfolded in front of the Claims Commissioners that day.

It was, and still is, the only way for citizens who feel they have been injured, unfairly treated or abused by the state to address the issue and possibly receive compensation. The courts, the traditional avenue for such redress, are prohibited since the state in its own state constitution has sovereign immunity as voted on and approved by the citizens in the document.

The case that day seemed to be plodding right along with the kitchen supervisor testifying about what the boy was told to be doing in the kitchen; the training given on the machine, which ground up chopped pieces of pork into sausage; and how safeguards were in place to prevent such an injury.

It came down to why then, did the boy, who had been trained to run the potentially dangerous machine, stick his hand -- rather than the wooden plunger into the machine to push the meat into the metal grinders?

Under some quick and intense questioning of the boy from the state attorney for the Claims Commission and one cat-quick commissioner who seemed to be following the questioning with equal vigor, the boy suddenly admitted he "wanted out of the reform school," and then he added the clincher: "I heard if I got hurt and lost a finger, I could get me a pickup truck."

The boy's lawyer objected to the answer.

The Claims Commission recessed to deliberate the claim behind closed doors. The commissioners, in my mind, made a good decision that day.

The state had already paid for the medical treatment, a stint of physical therapy and excused a portion of the young juvenile's sentence for his crime that sent him to the facility, all due to the injury.

He did not, that day, get a dollar from the state for his own self-inflicted injury.

There are more serious claims the state Claims Commission faces each time they meet than the above example.

But to change the state's status and allow such claims, I'm not so sure a poor state like Arkansas can afford the change.

• • •

Maylon Rice is a former journalist who worked for several northwest Arkansas publications. He can be reached via email at Opinions expressed are those of the author.

Editorial on 02/07/2018

Print Headline: State's immunity may change due to wage issues

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