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Oklahoma Supreme Court Holds Indian Tribes Immune From Semi Truck Lawsuit – Sheffer v. Buffalo Run Casino

By September 27, 2013July 23rd, 2019Trucking Accidents

Some months ago, I wrote here about a tractor-trailer accident lawsuit stemming from a crash that took place on the Oklahoma-Missouri border, near Joplin. In Sheffer v. Carolina Forge, the Oklahoma Supreme Court gave the Sheffer family a chance to prove that William Garris and David Billups were “at work” at the time they drove their rental car under the influence and hit a tractor-trailer containing Charles and Jennifer Sheffer and their minor son J.S. In the same lawsuit, the Sheffers also sued Buffalo Run Casino, PTE Inc. and the Peoria Tribe of Indians of Oklahoma, for over-serving Billups and Garris. The trial court dismissed the claims against the Tribe, saying prior rulings make Indian tribes immune from suit. In Sheffer v. Buffalo Run Casino, the Oklahoma Supreme Court agreed on that basis and others.
Billups and Garris were in Joplin on a business trip to see a customer of their employer, Carolina Forge. On their first night in town, after a day mixing business with pleasure, they went across the border to the Buffalo Run Casino in a rental car and drank. Finding themselves on westbound Interstate 44 instead of eastbound during their return trip, they attempted a U-turn at an opening in the center barricade. They collided with the Sheffers’ big rig, killing Billups and injuring the other four people involved. The Sheffers’ lawsuit against the casino defendants alleged dram shop liability—meaning that they accused defendants of serving Billups and Garris even while they were clearly intoxicated. The trial court, acting on its own initiative, dismissed the claims against the Tribe because a prior Oklahoma judge had issued injunctions prohibiting any tort suit against a tribe or tribal entity.
The Oklahoma Supreme Court took up the matter and found several reasons to uphold the ruling. Tribal casinos are governed by state compacts negotiated with tribes. The compact approved by Oklahoma voters says tribes may be sued in courts of competent jurisdiction; private arbitration established, and federal courts agreed, that Oklahoma courts are not courts of competent jurisdiction. Based on this, the Oklahoma high court agreed that its state courts cannot hear lawsuits against tribes. It further ruled that this immunity applies to commercial activities, which means dram-shop laws are included. Nor has Congress expressly abrogated the sovereign immunity of tribes, the high court said. And when the Peoria tribe applied for an Oklahoma liquor license, the court said, there’s no evidence that it expressly waived its sovereign immunity. Thus, the dismissal of the Tribe and its entities was affirmed.
This is a disappointing ruling, because it puts Indian tribes on a different footing from others who serve alcohol in Oklahoma. Ordinarily, anyone who over-serves a visibly intoxicated person or a minor here in Missouri, as well as in Oklahoma and Illinois, is liable in any 18-wheeler accident lawsuit caused by the intoxicated person. The goal is to give alcohol-serving businesses an incentive to watch how much they serve and who they serve, so they’re less likely to put higher profits ahead of public safety. Indian tribes have a special legal status—but the result is bad public policy as well as an advantage over their competition. When people are hurt in serious accidents involving semi trucks, accidents of geography should not govern whether they can recover fair compensation.

If your family lost someone or suffered a catastrophic injury in an accident involving a large commercial truck, don’t wait to call Carey, Danis & Lowe. For a free consultation on your rights and your legal options, you can call us toll-free at 1-877-678-3400 or send us an email anytime.
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