MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

Oklahoma News

October 28, 2013

High court says Peoria Tribe immune from suit in auto accident

Decision reverses one regarding liability of liquor servers

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — The Oklahoma Supreme Court, reversing a previous ruling, says a family injured in a 2006 auto accident cannot sue the Peoria Tribe or its Buffalo Run Casino, where the other driver in the crash had been drinking.

The court’s 5-4 ruling on Sept. 24 dismissed the claim by Jennifer and Charles Sheffer, who alleged the casino overserved David Billups. Billups was killed when his car collided with the Sheffers’ tractor-trailer. The Sheffers and their son were injured.

“The Peoria Tribe is immune from suit in state court,” the decision states. “Because the Peoria tribe and its entities did not expressly waive their sovereign immunity by applying for and receiving a liquor license from the State of Oklahoma, the tribe is immune from dramshop liability in state court.”

Under Oklahoma law, sellers of alcohol have dramshop liability, which means they could be liable if someone they sell alcohol to hurts someone else.

The ruling reversed an unrelated Oklahoma case the court decided in 2008 that involved Thunderbird Entertainment Center’s dramshop liability. At the time, the court said tribes waive their immunity when they receive a mixed beverage license from the state.

Attorneys representing the Sheffers have requested a rehearing. If the state Supreme Court denies their request, the family plans to take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, Lauren Peterson, the family’s attorney, told The Oklahoman.

“From our perspective, it has a lot of import for Oklahoma citizens, and any state,” she said.

Jon Brightmire, a Tulsa attorney representing the tribe, declined comment.

The Alcoholic Beverage Laws Enforcement Commission, which enforces the state’s alcohol laws, expressed concern over the decision at a recent meeting.

“We want to make sure those serving alcohol are responsible. If you take the liability away, it could be dangerous,” said ABLE Director Keith Burt.

He asked Kathryn Savage, an assistant attorney general who provides legal counsel to the commission, to research whether the agency could place a restriction or condition on the casino’s liquor license when it comes up for renewal in December.

Burt said to his knowledge that has never been done in Oklahoma with alcoholic beverages.

The Sheffers can’t sue in tribal court because the state Gaming Compact places a one-year limit on claims in tribal court.

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