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New Mexico Supreme Court rules tribal courts’ authority on casino injury cases

Publish Date: 01/21/2024
Fact checked by: Mike Goodpaster

On Tuesday, the New Mexico Supreme Court settled a prolonged legal dispute, ruling that tribal courts have jurisdiction over personal injury and property damage cases involving native american casinos.

The decision came from a 2016 lawsuit where an electrical company employee claimed severe injuries during a delivery at Pojoaque Pueblo’s casino, Buffalo Thunder Resort and Casino, in 2014. Initially, the case was set to be dismissed, but the state Court of Appeals later reversed that decision due to the new ruling.

In its decision, the court referred to prior rulings in two federal cases that nullified a provision in tribal-state gambling agreements. This provision had waived sovereign immunity, permitting the transfer of jurisdiction from tribal court to state court for some damage claims.

One of these federal cases dealt with a personal injury claim related to the excessive serving of alcohol at Santa Ana Pueblo’s casino. The other case involved a slip-and-fall lawsuit initiated in state court by a visitor to the Navajo Nation’s casino in northwestern New Mexico.

Responds to the ruling

Pueblo Governor Jenelle Roybal conveyed her contentment regarding the verdict. She stated that this outcome upholds the autonomous power of every Indian Pueblo and Nation in New Mexico, emphasizing that the State must adhere to its gaming agreement with them. Roybal, through an email statement from her attorney Daniel Rey-Bear, also expressed eagerness to put this decision into action moving forward.

Richard Hughes, a lawyer for the Santa Ana and Santa Clara pueblos, acknowledged the significance of the ruling. He mentioned that they have been contesting state court authority in these matters for two decades, and this marks the culmination of a prolonged effort to prevent state courts from intervening in tribal affairs.

While the New Mexico Trial Lawyers Association has not responded to the ruling, some argue that litigants might face unfair disadvantages in tribal courts. However, supporters of tribal jurisdiction assert that tribal courts are fully capable of handling such cases fairly.

The ruling is expected to have significant implications, potentially influencing personal injury lawyers to consider arbitration before pursuing legal action in tribal courts.

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