New Mexico Supreme Court Limits Tribal Sovereign Immunity in Casino Dram Shop Cases

In New Mexico, and other states for that matter, Indian tribes and pueblos retain sovereign immunity. This generally means that suits against tribes and pueblos, including personal injury and wrongful death claims, must be brought in tribal court.

However, under the Indian Gaming Compact, tribes have given up sovereign immunity for suits involving personal injury and property damage caused by enterprises authorized under the Compact. This means that Indian casino patrons can bring personal injury suits in state court.

New Mexico state courts have traditionally been largely deferential when it came to sovereign immunity claims. Generally, guests of restaurants and gas stations adjacent to casinos had difficulty keeping their suits in state district court due to claims of sovereign immunity. In its recent ruling in Mendoza v. Tamaya Enterprises, however, the New Mexico Supreme Court has considerably restricted sovereign immunity as it relates to gaming establishments and liquor laws.

The suit in Mendoza v. Tamaya Enterprises alleged that the Tamaya Resort was liable for the wrongful death of two intoxicated guests killed after leaving a wedding reception. The Defendant Resort claimed that New Mexico state courts did not have jurisdiction over the case because the Plaintiffs were not in the resort to gamble, and therefore its actions were governed instead by the Pueblo Liquor Ordinance. Under the Ordinance, tribal courts claim exclusive jurisdiction.

The New Mexico Supreme Court disagreed, consistent with the New Mexico Court of Appeals earlier ruling, and has allowed the suit to proceed in state court. Even though there was no evidence that the deceased were in the resort for gaming purposes, the Court held that state courts have jurisdiction over their wrongful death claims. With this holding, the Court cleared up a long-standing gray area, and made it clear that regardless of whether the injury or property damage had any connection to gaming, state courts have jurisdiction if the injury or damage was caused by the actions of a gaming establishment authorized under the Indian Gaming Compact.

Finding that state courts did have jurisdiction over the case, the Court proceeded to discuss what kind of a suit can be brought in state court under the circumstances. The Court found that the Plaintiffs had a common law dram shop third party and patron claim against the resort. New Mexico dram shop laws place liability on a person or establishment who serves alcohol to an individual who they knew or should have known was intoxicated.

The Court went on to define common law third party dram shop claims, common law patron claims, and the standards to prove each claim in state courts. In New Mexico, a common law third party dram shop claim is present when a defendant serves alcohol to an individual who is visibly intoxicated and that individual later injures a third party. Citing important policy considerations, the New Mexico Supreme Court also recognized a common law patron claim, where the intoxicated patron himself can bring a personal injury and wrongful death suit against the establishment that over-served him or her.

In order to harmonize this case with previous rulings and existent laws, the Court clarified the elements and standards for both types of claims. In a third party dram shop claim, the third party must prove that the person or business was negligent and that this negligence caused the third party‘s damages or injuries. In a patron claim, the patron must prove that the server or business “acted in gross negligence and in reckless disregard” of the patron‘s safety and that these actions caused the damages and injury. In other words, patrons must show a higher level of culpability by the defendant.

This recent ruling has significantly cleared up several uncertainties in cases involving Indian casinos and has increased the legal options for guests injured in these places. This does not necessarily mean that all cases involving Indian casinos can be brought in state court. However, at the very least hopefully it will prompt establishments to be more vigilant in protecting all of their guests.

Dram shop cases can be complex and challenging. This is doubly so when dealing with an Indian Casinos. An experienced personal injury attorney will be able to lead you through this difficult and sometimes frustrating process of bringing claims against an Indian Casino.

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