ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — The New Mexico Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that tribal courts have jurisdiction over personal injury and property damage cases filed against Native American casinos, ending a long battle that has seen Pueblo and other tribes claim sovereignty protections when… This is legal. Claims arise.
The decision stemmed from a 2016 lawsuit in which an electric company employee claimed he was seriously injured while making a delivery at the Pojoaque Pueblo Casino. The state Court of Appeals overturned a lower court ruling that initially called for the case to be dismissed.
The tribe then asked the state Supreme Court to settle the jurisdiction issue.
In its ruling, the court cited previous decisions in two federal cases that effectively terminated a provision in interstate gambling compacts that waived sovereign immunity to allow the transfer of jurisdiction from tribal court to state court with respect to certain tort claims.
One of those federal cases involved a personal injury claim related to the excessive serving of alcohol at the Santa Ana Pueblo Casino. The other was a lawsuit filed in state court by a visitor to a Navajo Nation casino in northwestern New Mexico.
Attorney Richard Hughes filed a brief on behalf of Santa Ana and Santa Clara Pueblos, with seven other pueblos signing. He told The Associated Press on Tuesday that the ruling is important and long overdue.
“We have been fighting against the jurisdiction of state courts in these cases for 20 years, so this is the end of a long struggle to keep state courts out of deciding tribal matters,” he said.
He and others have argued that nowhere in the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act has Congress authorized state courts to exercise jurisdiction over personal injury claims.
The New Mexico Trial Lawyers Association did not immediately return a message seeking comment on the ruling.
Those who advocate having state courts hear personal injury cases contend that people who file lawsuits over tribal gambling operations may face an unfair situation in tribal court.
Some experts expect personal injury lawyers to opt for arbitration before heading to tribal court, but Hughes said tribal courts are “fully competent to handle cases like this in a very fair and equitable manner.”
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