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Tribe can't be sued in alcohol case, Oklahoma Supreme Court says

A state Supreme Court decision has wide-reaching impact on tribal casinos' dramshop liability.
by Jennifer Palmer Modified: October 27, 2013 at 10:00 pm •  Published: October 27, 2013

A family injured in a big rig collision has little recourse after the state Supreme Court ruled they can't sue the casino where the other driver in the crash had been drinking.

The court decision, which found the Peoria Tribe and its Buffalo Run Casino immune from suit in state courts, is raising questions about an entity's legal responsibility when it serves alcohol. 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 case arose from a traffic collision in which Jennifer and Charles Sheffer and their young son were injured when their tractor-trailer was hit by a rental car driven by David Billups and occupied by William Garris, both Carolina Forge Co. employees on a work trip to Joplin, Mo.

The Sheffers sued the Peoria Tribe and Buffalo Run Casino in Miami, OK, for dramshop liability, asserting the casino overserved Billups (who died in the collision.) In a five to four decision, the state Supreme Court dismissed the claim Sept. 24.

“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.”

After the court issued its decision, attorneys representing the Sheffers requested a rehearing. If it's denied, the only venue left is the U.S. Supreme Court, said Lauren Peterson, an attorney for The Hershewe Law Firm in Jop-lin, Mo.

Ruling impacts regulators

The Alcoholic Beverage Laws Enforcement Commission (ABLE), which enforces the state's alcohol laws, expressed concern over the decision at its most 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.

Jon Brightmire, a Tulsa attorney representing the tribe, declined to comment when contacted by phone this week.

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by Jennifer Palmer
Investigative Reporter
Jennifer Palmer joined The Oklahoman staff in 2008 and, after five years on the business desk, is now digging deeper through investigative work. She's been recognized with awards in public service reporting and personal column writing. Prior to...
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