Using the Right Rulebook

Using the Right Rulebook

Using the Right Rulebook: Applying Comprehensive Understanding of Tribal Court Procedures to Achieve an Efficient Dismissal

Smith Freed & Eberhard partner Matt Ukishima recently achieved an impressive dismissal of a personal injury claim by utilizing his extensive knowledge of tribal court rules and ordinances to invoke his clients’ right to sovereign immunity and achieve a positive result in an efficient and cost effective manner.

The Background Story

In this case, Mr. Ukishima’s client was the Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua, and Siuslaw Indians (“the Tribes”). The Tribes own the Three Rivers Casino in Florence, Oregon. On the night in question, Plaintiff tripped over a parking block in the Casino’s outdoor parking lot. The parking block was situated in the walking area between two stalls with parked vehicles, rather than directly in front of a stall. In addition, a lack of lighting may have contributed to her failure to notice the parking block. As a result of the trip and fall, Plaintiff suffered a full comminuted fracture of the proximal humerus of her left shoulder causing permanent injury, sprain/strain injuries to various parts of her body, an impact trauma to her nose, and mental pain and suffering. Plaintiff sought over $650,000 in damages.

The Strategy

Plaintiff originally filed suit in Tribal Court. Based on Mr. Ukishima’s review of the file material and understanding of this tribal court’s rules and ordinances, he recognized that Plaintiff did not commence her lawsuit in a timely manner within the applicable statute of limitations, nor did she file a tort claim notice providing the tribal court with subject matter jurisdiction. At the initial mandatory court conference, Mr. Ukishima informed the tribal judge of his intent to dismiss the case on these grounds. Counsel for Plaintiff surreptitiously offered to dismiss the case and enter a judgment of dismissal if the Tribes agreed not to seek costs, to which Mr. Ukishima’s client agreed. Plaintiff’s counsel then filed a new lawsuit in Oregon state court arguing both that this court had subject matter jurisdiction and that the Plaintiff met the 2-year statute of limitations. Mr. Ukishima, informed by his extensive familiarity with tribal court proceedings, responded by filing a motion to dismiss, invoking the Tribes’ right to sovereign immunity and the Oregon state court’s lack of jurisdiction. Plaintiff’s counsel filed a cross-motion to dismiss the Tribes’ affirmative defenses of lack of jurisdiction and statute of limitations relying upon the Compact between the State of Oregon and the Confederated Tribes, arguing sovereign immunity is waived up to the limits of the Tribes’ liability insurance policy in state court. The parties held oral arguments and the presiding judge granted Mr. Ukishima’s motion and denied Plaintiff’s motion.

The Outcome

Because of Mr. Ukishima’s proficient understanding of the Tribes’ sovereign immunity rights and a thorough analyses and careful study of this Tribes’ relevant law, Mr. Ukishima initially was able to remove the case from tribal court, then successfully defeated plaintiff’s aggressive efforts to revive the claims. This appeared to be a case of at least shared liability by the Tribes as the parking block was not properly situated. Further, Mr. Ukishima would have also had to hire a lighting expert and human factors expert to prove plaintiff’s negligence, and possibly a building code expert. As such, Mr. Ukishima not only protected his client from liability but also saved his client the fees and costs associated with discovery and depositions. In so doing, Mr. Ukishima won on the law alone, achieving a quick and economic dismissal for his appreciative clients.