Oklahoma tribes disagree with state Supreme Court ruling on liability

Tulsa, Oklahoma (AP) 2-08

Some tribes that operate casinos in Oklahoma disagree with an Oklahoma Supreme Court ruling in a lawsuit against a tribe that claims a woman’s injuries were caused when an intoxicated casino patron crashed into her.

By a 7-2 vote during February, the Supreme Court overturned previous rulings by a Pottawatomie County district judge and the Oklahoma Court of Civil Appeals. Both of the lower courts had dismissed the case based on tribal sovereign immunity.

The lawsuit stems from an April 2004 car accident along State Highway 9 in Pottawatomie County in which Little Axe teacher 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, which is owned by the Absentee Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma.

Bahe died in the crash.

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

Supreme Court Chief Justice Joseph Watt said the tribe’s claim to sovereign immunity was waived when it agreed to be bound by a state law that allows for the casino to be licensed to sell liquor by the drink.

Osage Nation attorney Gary Pitchlynn said that reasoning was “juvenile.” He said tribal agreements with governments cannot wipe away a tribe’s sovereign immunity.

“A waiver of sovereign immunity has to be clear and explicit,” Pitchlynn said. “I can guarantee you that if tribes signed away their immunity when entering compacts, then there would be no compacts by any tribe with the state.”

He suggested that federal courts eventually could decide the questions raised by the state Supreme Court ruling.

Cherokee Nation spokesman Mike Miller said the Tahlequah-based tribe disagrees with the ruling but that it shouldn’t immediately affect its casino operations.

He said a policy is in place at Cherokee casinos to not serve alcohol to visibly intoxicated customers.