New Mexico Supreme Court rules tribal courts have jurisdiction over casino injury and damage cases

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The New Mexico Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that tribal courts have jurisdiction over personal injury and property damage cases brought against Native American casinos. This ended a long struggle in which pueblos and other tribes argued for the protection of sovereignty when such legal claims arose.

The decision stemmed from a 2016 lawsuit in which an electric utility worker claimed he was seriously injured during a delivery at the Pojoaque Pueblo casino. The state appeals court had reversed a lower court ruling that initially called for the case to be dismissed.

The tribe then asked the state Supreme Court to settle the issue of jurisdiction.

In its ruling, the court pointed to previous decisions in two federal cases that effectively struck down a provision in tribal-state gambling treaties that waived sovereign immunity so jurisdiction for some damages claims could move from tribal court to state court are moved.

One of those federal cases involved a personal injury claim involving too much alcohol being served at the Santa Ana Pueblo casino. The other was a slip-and-fall lawsuit filed in state court by a visitor to the Navajo Nation’s casino in northwestern New Mexico.

Attorney Richard Hughes had filed a brief on behalf of the pueblos of Santa Ana and Santa Clara, while seven other pueblos had signed on. He told The Associated Press on Tuesday that the ruling was significant and long overdue.

“We have been fighting the state courts’ jurisdiction over these cases for 20 years and so this is the end of a long battle to keep the state courts from deciding tribal cases,” he said.

He and others have argued that nowhere in the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act did Congress authorize 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 have advocated for state courts to hear personal injury cases argue that the people suing tribal gambling operations could be at an unfair disadvantage in tribal court.

Some experts expect personal injury attorneys will opt for arbitration before going to tribal court, but Hughes said tribal courts are “completely competent to handle these types of cases in a very fair and equitable manner.”