Supreme Court situation could expose Indian tribes to brand brand new legal dangers

Professor of Law & Director for the native Law & Policy Center, Michigan State University

Disclosure statement

Matthew L.M. Fletcher works well with eight Indian tribes being an appellate judge (Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, Hoopa Valley Tribe, Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, Nottawaseppi Huron Band associated with the Potawatomi, Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Pottawatomi Indians, Poarch Band of Creek Indians, Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians, and Santee Sioux Tribe). He’s connected to the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians being an enrolled user.


Michigan State University provides money as a founding partner of this Conversation US.

Accidents happen. And often those accidents include the workers of Indian tribes. The Supreme Court is planned to listen to a full instance that may rule in the the restrictions of appropriate resistance of tribes and their staff. Though it relates to a slim concern in an injury lawsuit, the situation could expose Indian tribes to unanticipated – and significant – liability in state and federal courts to which tribes are strangers.

The Supreme Court will address whether a tribal casino employee – in this case, a limo driver – can be sued for an accident that occurred while the employee was on the clock but outside of Indian lands in Lewis v. Clarke.

As being a scholar, i’ve examined the complexities of tribal sovereign resistance, tribal government-owned organizations together with unique challenges Indian tribes face in federal and state courts. My research leads me personally to think the results associated with the full situation is very important as it could set a precedent that could damage tribes’ ability to govern.

The backdrop

In belated 2011, a Mohegan Sun Casino limousine motorist rear-ended Brian and Michelle Lewis’ car on I-95 near Norwalk, Connecticut, hurting the few into the collision. Ordinarily, under Connecticut legislation, injured folks have couple of years to register an injury that is personal in state court.

Under Mohegan legislation, nonetheless, the statute of limits duration is just one 12 months, perhaps maybe not two. The Lewis couple did not bring a suit until two years after the incident, in 2013 for reasons not clear in the public record. They brought the suit to Connecticut courts since it was too late to sue in tribal court.

And right here’s the sc sc rub, lawfully talking: Indian tribes can not be sued in state court without their permission. This provision is what’s known as “sovereign immunity.” Us constitutional legislation teaches that federal and state governments can not be sued in court absent their consent, a doctrine that predates the forming of the Constitution. Certainly, Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist Paper No. 81 lay out this concept in 1788.

Counsel for the Lewis couple most likely knew tribes benefit from the exact same resistance and decided to sue the limo motorist alternatively associated with the tribe, the driver’s boss at the time of the collision.

Accidental injury lawyers have a tendency to look for deep pouches that will spend a million buck judgment, so a suit against a limo motorist does not appear to be a winning strategy in the event that objective is a payout that is large. It seems the Lewises’ lawyer thinks the tribe shall step up in order to make good a judgment against its worker.

That lawyer might be appropriate. For company reasons, in the event that Mohegan tribe really wants to retain good workers, it could be obligated to spend cash damages awarded by a us state court, as one tribe argued in a youthful instance. If your tribe does not offer appropriate defenses to a worker, much the way in which other organizations would, it might have chilling impact by exposing workers to undue danger.

The Mohegan Sun is just one of the two biggest tribal-owned gambling enterprises in the usa. AP Photo/Jessica Hill

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