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Wilkes v. PCI Gaming Authority

Supreme Court of Alabama

September 29, 2017

Casey Marie Wilkes and Alexander Jack Russell
v.
PCI Gaming Authority d/b/a Wind Creek Casino and Hotel Wetumpka, and Poarch Band of Creek Indians

         Appeal from Elmore Circuit Court (CV-15-900057)

          STUART, Chief Justice.

         Casey Marie Wilkes and Alexander Jack Russell appeal the summary judgment entered by the Elmore Circuit Court in favor of PCI Gaming Authority d/b/a Wind Creek Casino and Hotel Wetumpka ("Wind Creek-Wetumpka"), and the Poarch Band of Creek Indians (hereinafter referred to collectively as "the tribal defendants"), [1] on negligence and wantonness claims asserted by Wilkes and Russell seeking compensation for injuries they received when an automobile driven by Wilkes was involved in a collision with a pickup truck belonging to Wind Creek-Wetumpka and being driven by Barbie Spraggins, an employee at Wind Creek-Wetumpka. We reverse and remand.

         I.

         Spraggins began working as a facilities-management administrator at Wind Creek-Wetumpka in November 2013. During the course of her employment, one of her supervisors reported her to higher level management at least six times because she smelled of alcohol while at work. On at least two occasions, Spraggins was tested for alcohol as a result of those reports, and a blood test taken on February 13, 2014, revealed that she had a blood-alcohol content of .078 while at work. Spraggins was eventually referred to an employee-assistance program, and she saw a counselor in conjunction with that program from March through September 2014.

         The record indicates that, on January 1, 2015, Spraggins arrived for work at approximately 8:00 a.m. after drinking much of the night. At some point after arriving at work, she decided to travel to a warehouse maintained by Wind Creek-Wetumpka approximately 10 miles away in Montgomery to retrieve lamp shades that were needed for some hotel rooms at Wind Creek-Wetumpka. Spraggins was authorized to use a Wind Creek-Wetumpka vehicle for such purposes, and she took a 2008 Chevrolet Silverado pickup truck on that occasion. It is unclear exactly where Spraggins traveled after picking up the lamp shades at the Montgomery warehouse; however, at approximately 10:50 a.m., the pickup truck she was driving struck a guardrail while crossing the Mortar Creek bridge on Alabama State Highway 14 outside of Elmore, crossed into oncoming traffic, and was involved in a head-on collision with a vehicle being driven by Wilkes. Spraggins, Wilkes, and Russell, a passenger in Wilkes's vehicle, were all transported to the Baptist Medical Center South hospital in Montgomery for medical treatment following the accident, and a blood test administered at the hospital revealed that Spraggins had a blood-alcohol content of .293 approximately 1 hour and 45 minutes after the collision. Spraggins has since been unable to recall why she was traveling on the Mortar Creek bridge at the time of the collision; that location is approximately eight miles west of Wind Creek-Wetumpka and not on the route to the warehouse where she picked up the lamp shades.

         On February 16, 2015, Wilkes and Russell sued Spraggins and the tribal defendants in the Elmore Circuit Court.[2] As subsequently amended, Wilkes and Russell's complaint asserted negligence and wantonness claims against Spraggins and the tribal defendants based on Spraggins's operation of the pickup truck at the time of the January 2015 accident, and negligence and wantonness claims against the tribal defendants based on their hiring, retention, and supervision of Spraggins.[3]Following a period of discovery, the tribal defendants moved the trial court to enter a summary judgment in their favor, arguing that the Poarch Band of Creek Indians was a federally recognized Indian tribe and that they were accordingly protected by the doctrine of tribal sovereign immunity or, alternatively, that Spraggins was not acting within the scope of her employment at the time of the January 2015 accident. Wilkes and Russell opposed the tribal defendants' summary-judgment motion; however, on June 7, 2016, the trial court granted the tribal defendants' motion and entered a summary judgment in their favor, holding that it lacked subject-matter jurisdiction over the dispute because of the tribal sovereign immunity held by the tribal defendants. On August 10, 2016, the trial court certified its judgment as final pursuant to Rule 54(b), Ala. R. Civ. P., and, on September 20, 2016, Wilkes and Russell filed their notice of appeal to this Court.

         II.

         Wilkes and Russell seek the reversal of the summary judgment entered by the trial court holding that the tribal defendants are protected from suit by the doctrine of tribal sovereign immunity. This Court has stated:

"This Court's review of a summary judgment is de novo. Williams v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 886 So.2d 72, 74 (Ala. 2003). We apply the same standard of review as the trial court applied. Specifically, we must determine whether the movant has made a prima facie showing that no genuine issue of material fact exists and that the movant is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law. Rule 56(c), Ala. R. Civ. P.; Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Alabama v. Hodurski, 899 So.2d 949, 952-53 (Ala. 2004). In making such a determination, we must review the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmovant. Wilson v. Brown, 496 So.2d 756, 758 (Ala. 1986). Once the movant makes a prima facie showing that there is no genuine issue of material fact, the burden then shifts to the nonmovant to produce 'substantial evidence' as to the existence of a genuine issue of material fact. Bass v. SouthTrust Bank of Baldwin County, 538 So.2d 794, 797-98 (Ala. 1989); Ala. Code 1975, § 12-21-12."

Dow v. Alabama Democratic Party, 897 So.2d 1035, 1038-39 (Ala. 2004).

         III.

         The issue presented in this appeal is whether the doctrine of tribal sovereign immunity shields the tribal defendants from the tort claims asserted by Wilkes and Russell. In Michigan v. Bay Mills Indian Community, __U.S.__, __, 134 S.Ct. 2024, 2030-31 (2014), the Supreme Court of the United States explained tribal sovereign immunity as follows:

"Indian tribes are '"domestic dependent nations"' that exercise 'inherent sovereign authority.' Oklahoma Tax Comm'n v. Citizen Band Potawatomi Tribe of Okla., 498 U.S. 505, 509 (1991) (Potawatomi) (quoting Cherokee Nation v. Georgia, 5 Pet. 1, 17 (1831)). As dependents, the tribes are subject to plenary control by Congress. See United States v. Lara, 541 U.S. 193, 200 (2004) ('[T]he Constitution grants Congress' powers 'we have consistently described as "plenary and exclusive"' to 'legislate in respect to Indian tribes'). And yet they remain 'separate sovereigns pre-existing the Constitution.' Santa Clara Pueblo v. Martinez, 436 U.S. 49, 56 (1978). ...

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