Medina v. Estate of Cody – 10/5/2023

December 1, 2023

Arizona Court of Appeals Division One holds that a tribal member cannot be haled into state court for actions arising out of conduct on the reservation, even when the actions occurred on a state easement through the reservation.

A fatal car crash occurred along a section of U.S. Highway 89, located within the Navajo Nation.  A car driven by a tribal member crossed the center line and collided with the Pena Delgado family’s car.  The four members of the Pena Delgado family, the driver of the other car, and his passenger—also a tribal member—were killed.  The personal representative of the Pena Delgado family filed claims for wrongful death, negligence, and negligent entrustment of the vehicle.  The tribal members’ insurance carrier intervened, then moved to dismiss the case for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. 

The issue in dispute was whether the tribal courts have exclusive jurisdiction over civil tort actions arising out of conduct on state-maintained rights-of-way through tribal land.  The superior court found that it lacked jurisdiction because the defendants were tribal members, the plaintiffs were not tribal members, and the collision occurred on a state highway within the Navajo reservation.  The Court of Appeals affirmed.  The court applied Enriquez v. Superior Court, a 1977 Court of Appeals case addressing the same question and concluding, based on United States Supreme Court precedent in Williams v. Lee, that state courts may not exercise jurisdiction over on-reservation activity because doing so would infringe on the rights of tribal members.  The court found Williams to be good law, despite a more recent line of Supreme Court cases constructing an analytical framework for resolving conflicts between state and tribal jurisdiction.  The court differentiated this more recent line of cases as analyzing the extent of tribal court jurisdiction over non-tribal members, not the scope of state court jurisdiction over tribal members. 

Since the question raised here is whether the state court may preside over an action against an enrolled tribal member, the Williams framework applies.  And under the Williams framework, a state court may exercise jurisdiction over a dispute brought by a non-tribal member against a tribal member for conduct arising on tribal land only if that exercise of jurisdiction does not violate federal law or infringe on the right of the tribes to make their own laws.  

The court also determined whether the state-maintained highway where the accident occurred was tribal land.  Finding that the membership status of the nonconsenting party to be the most important jurisdictional fact, the court determined that the nonmember defendants could not be haled into court for actions that occurred on a state-maintained easement on the reservation under the Williams framework.  Accordingly, the superior court lacked jurisdiction over the tribal defendants for their conduct arising on a state easement through the reservation.

Judge Williams authored the opinion, in which Judges Thumma and McMurdie joined.

Posted by: Sarah Pook-Lawson