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In what plaintiffs’ attorneys are calling a first-of-its kind victory, a California appeals court has intervened in a slip-and-fall accident at an Indian casino, ordering the tribal casino to settle the victim’s claim through arbitration. But the casino’s lawyer argues that the state appeals court lacked jurisdiction to impose the order, and that the ruling infringes upon the Indians’ right to conduct their own affairs and enact their own laws. Moreover, argued the casino’s lawyer, the order could set a dangerous precedent and trigger future lawsuits against Indian casinos. “The trial lawyers are circling and the theme from Jaws is playing in the background and they’re smelling blood,” said Steven O’Neal, a solo in San Diego who represented the Campo Indian tribe in the litigation. He plans to appeal the recent ruling. Campo Band of Mission Indians v. Super Ct. of San Diego, No. D046568 (Calif. Ct. App. 4th Dist.). “This case will be used by the trial lawyers to just open up lawsuits against Indian tribes in state courts. That’s my fear,” O’Neal said. But plaintiffs’ attorneys argue that Indian casinos have long ignored injured plaintiffs’ claims, and that a court ruling mandating some accountability was long overdue. “The major problem has been that the tribes have established this pattern of practice of denying these claims outright-almost as if they’re above the law,” said Spencer S. Busby of the Law Offices of Spencer S. Busby in San Diego, which handled the suit against the Campo Band of Mission Indians. The case stems from a 2002 slip-and-fall accident at the Golden Acorn Casino in Campo, Calif., where patron Celeste Bluehawk slipped on a wet floor and injured her back. According to Busby, the tribe’s insurance carrier denied her claim, so she filed a personal injury suit in superior court. Her suit was dismissed on sovereign immunity grounds. Bluehawk filed a second suit, and in 2005, a superior court judge ordered the tribe to submit to arbitration, as required by a gambling compact signed with the state. A limited waiver According to Bluehawk’s lawyers, the Campo tribe has a gambling compact that contains a limited waiver of sovereign immunity for personal injury disputes. The tribes are required to have a formal dispute-resolution procedure for injured parties, including arbitration. O’Neal argues that Bluehawk didn’t ask for arbitration in a timely manner. On appeal, he plans to argue that Bluehawk didn’t follow the proper procedures for making a tort claim, therefore forfeiting her right to demand arbitration in accordance with Indian law.

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