New Mexico Tribal Courts Have Jurisdiction Over Casino Patron Tort Claims
January 22, 2024
In a recent decision, the New Mexico Supreme Court ruled in the case of Sipp v. Buffalo Thunder Inc. that state courts do not have the authority to adjudicate tort claims filed by casino visitors. The unanimous decision delivered in this case involved an employee of an electrical company who was injured while making a delivery to Buffalo Thunder Resort and Casino in 2014. This decision has significant implications for the jurisdictional landscape surrounding tribal casinos in New Mexico.
In this case, Jeremiah Sipp sought damages in New Mexico State Court for injuries he suffered when a loading dock door struck his head during a delivery at Buffalo Thunder Resort. The lawsuit faced dismissal in 2017 for lack of jurisdiction, but the New Mexico State Court of Appeals reversed this decision. Buffalo Thunder Inc. appealed to the state’s highest court, leading to the recent ruling.
The crux lies in the interpretation of New Mexico tribal-state gaming compacts, which initially included a provision waiving tribal sovereign immunity for some damage claims, allowing jurisdiction to shift from tribal court to state or federal court. However, the “visitor protection provision,” found in Section 8(A) of the gaming compact between the Pueblo of Pojoaque and New Mexico, was subject to termination if a state or federal court determined that the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (“IGRA”) prohibited the jurisdictional shift.
The New Mexico Supreme Court, in its opinion authored by Chief Justice C. Shannon Bacon, examined federal court rulings in two critical cases involving New Mexico tribes. In the 2013 case Pueblo of Santa Ana v. Nash, a federal district court concluded that New Mexico state courts lacked jurisdiction over a personal injury claim related to the over-serving of alcohol at a casino. The court indicated this as the qualifying event triggering the termination clause in the compact.
Similarly, in the 2018 case Navajo Nation v. Dalley, where a visitor was involved in a slip-and-fall incident at a Navajo Nation casino, the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit determined that relevant jurisdiction shift was not authorized under IGRA, serving as the triggering event for termination.
The Tenth Circuit’s decision concluded that jurisdiction shifting to state court ended due to these federal rulings, indicating that the state court was the improper venue for bodily injury and property damage claims. The original verdict was overturned by the New Mexico Court of Appeals that would have allowed Sipp to proceed with the lawsuit in state court against Buffalo Thunder Inc. However, the New Mexico Supreme Court found that this presented a contractual issue based on the gaming compact between the tribe and the state. The court determined that the language in Section 8(A) is unambiguous and that, under contract law, the jurisdiction shifts were terminated.
This New Mexico Supreme Court decision settles a prolonged dispute over jurisdiction in personal injury cases against tribal casinos and reinforces the sovereign authority of tribes in New Mexico. The court’s emphasis on interpreting the gaming compacts as contracts and avoiding an opinion on IGRA’s broader implications clarifies the specific termination events outlined in the compacts.
As a result, personal injury lawsuits against New Mexico tribal casinos must now be pursued in tribal courts or through arbitration. The ruling has been hailed by the Pueblo of Pojoaque as a validation of tribal sovereignty and confirmed that the state is bound by its gaming compacts agreed upon between the state and the tribe. While this decision brings closure to an almost decade-long dispute, it also sets precedence that there may be a shift toward arbitration for resolution and further solidifying that state courts do not have jurisdiction over tribal affairs in regard to personal injury claims on the premises of tribal gaming facilities.
While this case is limited to New Mexico and based on language specified in the New Mexico gaming compact, entities or individuals doing business with tribal casinos in other states should review the gaming compacts in those states to determine the applicable terms and language governing patron tort claims. Here, the court did not provide an opinion on whether IGRA prohibits jurisdictional shifts in all circumstances, further emphasizing the need to review specific agreed-upon gaming compacts between the state and tribes.
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