June 2012 Labor Law Update

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The Appellate Division, Fourth Department confirms that New York’s Labor Law applies to both Native American’s and non-Native American’s injured on Tribal Land.

Many are not aware that personal injury suits against Native American tribes, such as the Seneca Nation, and their employees are pre-empted by the Nation’s sovereign immunity if the injury occurs on Tribal lands.  See Zeth v. Johnson, 2 AD3d 1491, 769 NYS2d 443 [4th Dept. 2003].  In Zeth the court dismissed the plaintiff’s holding that “it is fundamental that Indian tribes possess sovereign immunity from suit in state and Federal Courts.”  In addition “the doctrine of tribal immunity extends to individual tribe officials acting in their representative capacity and within the scope of their authority.”  In Zeth, the named defendant was operating a snow plow and clearing out a commercial parking lot when he backed out onto a state highway and drove over the top of Ms. Zeth’s vehicle.  Nevertheless, the court held that he was entitled to sovereign immunity as he was a Native American and “performing his official duties and acting in the scope of his authority.”  As an extension, the question then became whether New York’s civil laws apply on Native American lands.

This led to a series of appellate cases addressing the interplay between New York’s civil law and Native American immunity from suit.  Indeed, starting in Karcz v. Klewin Build. Co., Inc., 85 AD3d 1649, 926 NYS2d 277 [4th Dept. 2011] the court held that New York State’s Labor law would apply to a situation where all parties were non-Native Americans, holding that such a situation did not implicate the internal affairs of the Seneca Nation as the sole connection the Nation had to the incident was the locus of the injury.  Thus, the Court held that the plaintiff was properly granted summary judgment pursuant to Labor Law § 240(1).  Next in John v. Klewin Build. Co., Inc., 94 AD3d 1502 [4th Dept. 2012], the court again held that the Labor Law vicarious liability provisions do apply even though the plaintiff sustained an injury on a Native-American reservation.  Further, even though the plaintiff in Johnwas a Native American, the court held that he was entitled to the protections afforded under the Labor Law.  Most recently in Hill v. Seneca Nation of Indians, et. al. and Seneca Concrete and Paving Co., LLC, the court re-affirmed its decision in John making clear that “the plaintiff’s status as a Native American is not dispositive of the issue before us” [whether the Labor Law protections apply to a plaintiff injured on Tribal land].  The court ultimately held that the defendant, a non-Native American entity, “cannot avoid its obligations under New York law by hiding behind tribal sovereignty.”  Note that the court stressed that Seneca Concrete and Paving Co. was a New York corporation and not a Native American entity.

Thus, it should be clear that New York’s Labor Law does apply to incidents that occur on tribal lands, providing protection to Native American and non-Native Americans injured on Tribal lands.  However, it must be noted that once again any action against the Nation itself or employees of the Nation seems doomed to failure if they are performing official duties within the scope of their authority.  To read the entire opinion, please click here.