Supreme Court rules suit against tribe can proceed

By Sean Murphy
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma (AP) 2-08

A lawsuit against an Oklahoma Indian tribe that claims a woman’s injuries were caused when an intoxicated casino patron crashed into her may proceed in state district court, according to a Supreme Court decision filed early Febuary.

The lawsuit stems from an April 2004 car accident along State Highway 9 in Pottawatomie County in which Little Axe schoolteacher Shatona Bittle was seriously injured. Bittle’s attorneys argued the driver who caused the crash, Valentine Bahe, had been drinking at the nearby Thunderbird Casino owned by the Absentee Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma. Bahe died in the crash.

The Supreme Court decision overturned previous rulings by a Pottawatomie County district judge and the Oklahoma Court of Civil Appeals, both of which had dismissed the case based on tribal sovereign immunity.

The decision did not address the merits of the case, which was ordered back to the district court for consideration.

Six of the state Supreme Court’s nine members concurred in the court’s opinion, with one member concurring separately. Two members of the state’s highest court dissented.

“This is really a significant ruling because it makes tribes subject to the state courts,” said Kevin Hill, one of Bittle’s attorneys. “The tribe claimed sovereign immunity from any cause of action based on liquor sales, which is not right. That’s a very bad policy.”

Jeremy Carter, an attorney representing the tribe, referred questions about the ruling to the tribe’s attorney general’s office, which declined to comment to The Associated Press.

The tribe and the casino have argued that neither Bahe nor passenger Val Tsosie were ever at the casino before the accident. They also argued that the casino closed at 2 a.m. but the accident happened more than five hours later, at 7:15 a.m.

Hill said Bittle’s car, which was hit head-on, was thrown into the air and landed upside down in a ditch.

“My client had more than $130,000 in medical bills,” he said. “She had multiple orthopedic injuries, serious injuries that are going to affect her for the rest of her life.”

In its majority opinion, written by Justice Steven Taylor, the court ruled that the tribe and its casino are not shielded by the doctrine of tribal sovereign immunity from the exercise of state court jurisdiction.

“Like any other state-licensed commercial vendor operating a bar and serving alcoholic beverages for consumption on the premises, the tribe is subjected to the criminal civil jurisdiction of the state courts and may be hailed into state court to answer allegations that it furnished alcoholic beverages to a noticeably intoxicated customer,” Taylor wrote.

Justices Yvonne Kauger and James Edmondson dissented. In the dissenting opinion, Kauger wrote that determining whether sovereign immunity applies in this case is premature.

“Answering the question at this stage in the litigation appears premature because the only evidence in the record is that the driver of the automobile which struck the plaintiff was not at the casino prior to the accident,” Kauger wrote.