Patience is a Virtue–Six Years Later, Federal District Court Concludes Tribal Court Lacks Jurisdiction Over Non-Member Insurer

Thirteen years after a fuel spill at a gas station on tribal land in Chinle, Arizona, Michael Raymond secured a significant victory over a threshold issue of jurisdiction. In a battle lasting five and a half years, Michael Raymond finally prevailed for his client on April 4, 2019 when the United States District Court ruled that the Navajo Nation did not have jurisdiction over a non-member insurer, even where the underlying harm complained of occurred on tribal land. Beginning in 2013, the Navajo Nation sued in tribal court the insurer of two non-Indian contractors who had performed work on tribal land and who allegedly caused a petroleum spill leading to environmental contamination. The Navajo Nation claimed that tribal courts had jurisdiction over the insurer because insurance monies were necessary to help pay for the clean-up of the contaminated land.

Mr. Raymond filed a motion to dismiss the Navajo Nation’s complaint, arguing that the insurer of the two contractors did not engage in any activity or conduct on tribal land that would subject it to tribal court jurisdiction. The Navajo District Court ruled in favor of the Navajo Nation and after the Navajo Supreme Court refused to hear the matter, Mr. Raymond sought relief in federal district court in Arizona. On cross-motions for summary judgment, the Court ruled in Mr. Raymond’s client’s favor, declaring that because the insurer had never contracted with any tribal members and indeed, had never stepped foot on tribal land, the Navajo Court’s had no basis to hear a claim against it.

The extent of tribal court jurisdiction over a non-tribal member is an oft-litigated issue t most often requires exhaustion of tribal court remedies before a defendant can seek relief in federal court. The decision by Judge Lanza of the U.S. District Court of Arizona establishes the outer limits on tribal court jurisdiction, even under the more expansive jurisdiction view of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

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