Wisconsin SCT to Hear Nonmember Challenge to Tribal Immunity

Here. Lower court materials here. From the SCT’s website:

2011AP364 Koscielak v. Stockbridge-Munsee Community
This case examines whether tribal sovereign immunity bars a state law tort claim arising from a slip-and-fall incident and the proper legal standard involved in guiding that analysis.

Some background: On Feb. 22, 2008, Robert Koscielak sustained injuries when he slipped and fell on ice in the Pine Hills Golf and Supper Club parking lot in Gresham, Wis. He and his wife, Mary Koscielak, filed suit against the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohicans under the tribe’s business name, Pine Hills, on June 1, 2010, alleging a variety of tort claims.

Pine Hills moved to dismiss the lawsuit and its motion was converted to a motion for summary judgment. The Tribe argued that Pine Hills was a subordinate economic entity of the Tribe such that Pine Hills was entitled to the sovereign immunity conferred upon the Tribe by federal law. The circuit court agreed. The court also ruled that because the Koscielaks’ claims against the tribe were barred, their claims against the tribe’s insurer, First Americans Insurance, were barred, too.

The Koscielaks appealed, arguing, among other things, the circuit court erred in applying the doctrine of tribal immunity under the specific facts presented. The Court of Appeals affirmed.

The Court of Appeals ultimately concluded that Wisconsin law has never before distinguished between tort and contract claims for tribal immunity purposes. The court thus declined to draw such a distinction here, stating that the “matter is best left to the Wisconsin Supreme Court or the federal courts.” The Koscielaks do not directly challenge tribal immunity, per se. Rather, they argue that Pine Hills is not entitled to tribal sovereign immunity because its business activities are too attenuated from the Tribe.

More specifically, they state the issues as follows:

  • Does a federally recognized Indian tribe enjoy sovereign immunity from suit on a state law tort claim not arising out of a contract with the tribe, of a Wisconsin citizen who is not a member of any Indian tribe, for personal injuries sustained at an off-reservation tribally owned for profit supper club open to the general public, to extend to a true “arm of the tribe” business?
  • Is the multi-factor “arm of the tribe” analysis set forth in McNally CPA’s & Consultants, S.C. v. DJ Hosts, Inc., 2004 WI App 221, ¶8, 277 Wis. 2d 801, 692 N.W.2d 247, which the Court of Appeals discredited and failed to apply to the business at issue, the controlling legal test for Wisconsin courts to apply to determine when any sovereign immunity enjoyed by a tribe may properly extend to a tribally-owned business entity?
  • Based on a de novo review with proper application of that test, or other “arm of the tribe” test that this court may establish, is Pine Hills Golf Course and Supper Club an “arm of the tribe”?
  • Under an “occurrence” type insurance policy, are the Koscielaks entitled to the benefit of mandated non-immune liability insurance coverage based on the tribe’s legal position at the time of the “occurrence” in an unrelated federal case that Pine Hills was a gaming entity under its Gaming Compact?

The tribe and First American frame the issues as follows:

  • Does this court have any reason or authority to create an exception to the established rule of tribal sovereign immunity?
  • Do the facts of this case, which involve a unit of the tribe itself, present any occasion for clarifying or modifying factors developed by other courts for determining whether a tribe’s immunity extends to a separately-incorporated organization?
  • May an ordinary commercial general liability carrier be held directly liable to an injured party if its insured is immune?

From Shawano County.