Tribal Law and Personal Injury Claims


With the growth of casinos and outlet malls on tribal lands in Washington State, many Washington citizens are unwittingly subjecting themselves to a completely different set of rules and jurisdictions in the event they are injured on tribal property. Most people don’t realize that tribal rules eliminate some types of personal injury claims and can significantly limit the amount of damages an injured person can recover if they are injured on tribal property.  Tribes are independent sovereign governments and as such, are largely independent from state and federal government regulations. Each tribe sets up their own tribal courts and tribal court rules, including tribal personal injury tort laws, which are very different from state personal injury court rules.  The article below is intended to show how one tribe, the Snoqualmie Tribe, has limited the public’s ability to seek damages for personal injury claims on tribal property.

Before bringing a personal injury action against any tribe, it is critical to find the tribe’s official Tribal Tort Laws and read them carefully. There are 29 federally recognized sovereign Tribal Nations in the State of Washington, including the Snoqualmie, Muckleshoot, Puyallup, Tulalip, Lummi, Swinomish, and Chehalis Tribes.

Do this as soon as possible after an injury because the time limits and procedures for tribes are different than in state court and can be significantly shorter. Each tribe has their own tribal courts and tribal tort laws.  Although tribal laws are different and can be very challenging, we have found the tribal members we dealt with (other than their insurance adjusters) to be very pleasant and cooperative, and were very good about signing the certified letters of notice and service of process.

By way of an illustration, Snoqualmie Tribal Council Act 8.7, entitled “An Act Relating to Tort Claims on Snoqualmie Tribal Lands” was codified on April 3, 2009, and it sets forth a “limited waiver of the Tribe’s sovereign immunity for tort claims.”  It goes on to explain rules and procedures for pursuing personal injury claims against that tribe. Note, these rules and regulations are subject to change and should be verified and updated regularly, and the regulations referenced in this article must be independently confirmed to be sure they are still current.  The much shorter Snoqualmie Tribal procedures for personal injury claims present a trap for the unwary.

Overall, the Snoqualmie Tribal Tort Laws are complicated and present numerous obstacles to pursuing personal injury claims against that tribe. For example, Section 8.0 entitled “Limitations On Awards” excludes strict liability, punitive damages, or loss of consortium claims against the tribe and limits “pain and suffering or mental anguish” damages to “fifty percent (50%) of the actual damages sustained” up to the limits of the tribe’s liability insurance policy. Of course, in State Superior Court, there is no limit to the amount a personal injury claimant can potentially recover.

Section 10.0 entitled “Procedures and Time For Filing Tort Claims” provides in part that personal injury claims against the tribe must be brought within “270 days” from the date of the alleged negligent act. Section 10.0 (f). Written notice of the personal injury claim must be sent via US Mail, Return Receipt Requested, to the Secretary of the Tribal Council and to the Tribe’s In-House Legal Counsel as well as to any “agent, employee or officer of the Tribe” who is alleged to have injured the plaintiff. Section 10.0 (a). This notice must be given to all required parties within 180 days after the alleged negligent act, and is valid only if the notice contains all required information. Section 10.0 (c).   

Section 10.0 (e) prohibits filing a personal injury claim in Snoqualmie Tribal Court “until the expiration of ninety (90) days after the date of the last notice required by this section is given.” The Tribal Court will not accept any personal injury claims “unless the claimant files written proof of compliance with Subsections (a)-(c) of this section.” Section 10.0 (g).  Personal injury claims against the Snoqualmie Tribe in Snoqualmie Tribal Court are tried before a Tribal Judge, only and there is no right to a jury.  Section 13.0.  

The Snoqualmie Tribal Tort Laws contain many other limitations and procedural requirements, all of which must be read and followed in order to understand how to make a valid personal injury claim against that tribe. Thus, if someone is injured by someone else’s negligence on tribal property, such as a tribal casino, it is imperative to immediately research that tribe’s tribal personal injury and tort laws so the correct procedures can be followed.


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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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