Appeals Court Reverses Ruling in Turtle Mountain Reservation FireAn appeals court has reversed a ruling that would have allowed family members of two people killed in a 2002 house fire on the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation in North Dakota to sue an insurance company. A dissenting judge called it a "perverse" outcome.
By: Dave Kolpack, Associated Press
FARGO, N.D. (AP) — An appeals court has reversed a ruling that would have allowed family members of two people killed in a 2002 house fire on the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation in North Dakota to sue an insurance company. A dissenting judge called it a "perverse" outcome.
A federal judge in 2008 refused to throw out a wrongful death and personal injury claim filed in tribal court against Amerind Risk Management Corp. by tribal members Myrna Malaterre, Carol Belgarde and Lonnie Thompson. Malaterre and Belgarde lost daughters in the fire. Thompson was injured in the blaze.
Amerind claimed in its appeal to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that the company could not be held liable in tribal court. A three-judge panel released its opinion last week. Judge Kermit E. Bye cast the dissenting vote.
"Finally, I am compelled to comment on what I view as a perverse result," Bye wrote. "Amerind, a commercial entity created for the very purpose of insuring tribal entities, is permitted to rely upon tribal immunity as a ground for avoiding its contractual obligation to provide insurance coverage."
Tom Dickson of Bismarck, Malaterre's attorney who argued the appeal for all three tribal members, said he will ask the entire 8th Circuit to hear the case.
"We have been working on this case since 2002. It's an ongoing battle," Dickson said.
An attorney for Amerind did not return phone calls to The Associated Press seeking comment.
The Oct. 19, 2002, fire killed Stacey Bruce, Malaterre's daughter, and Ruth Poitra, Belgarde's daughter. Bruce, Poitra and Thompson were houseguests at the time. The case was argued in front of the appeals court in October 2009.
"It was pretty clear from the time lag that there was disagreement on the panel," Dickson said
Malaterre, Belgarde and Thompson had filed the wrongful death and personal injury lawsuit in tribal court against the Turtle Mountain Housing Authority, and later amended it to include Amerind. The tribal court ruled that the housing authority could not be sued but said Amerind could face legal action because tribal housing authorities are required by federal law to carry insurance.
The 8th Circuit panel ruled that federal corporate law gives Amerind sovereign immunity, an issue that wasn't raised in the company's original argument.
"Now, the housing authority has immunity and Amerind has immunity, and Myrna Malaterre, a native American mother on the reservation, has no claim. None," Dickson said.