Court finds Miccosukee Tribe liable for $3.2 million judgment

Ruling from the bench, the 11th Circuit Court in Miami-Dade County recently amended its judgment in a wrongful death civil action against two Miccosukee tribe members to make the tribe fully liable for payment of the $3.2 million award of damages based on the original jury verdict against the two defendants in 2009. The individual defendants were the driver and the owner of an uninsured vehicle in a two-car crash that occurred in 1998 and killed a 30-year-old woman, the wife and mother of the plaintiffs, a father and son.

When the individual defendants maintained they could not pay the judgment, the plaintiffs moved to involve the tribe, arguing that by paying $3.1 million in legal defense fees and by directing the strategy and tactics of the defense, the Miccosukee tribe had become, in effect, a real party in interest although not named as a defendant in the original complaint. The tribe pleaded sovereign immunity under federal law as a shield against liability for the judgment. The court, however, accepted the plaintiffs’ argument that in paying all of the defendants’ legal expenses and controlling the conduct of the defense case, the tribe had waived the affirmative defense of sovereign immunity and exposed itself to liability.

The tribe says it will take the ruling to the Third District Court of Appeal and argues that the “fraudulent scheme” by which the former tribe chairman arranged for payment of the defendants’ legal fees was no valid waiver of sovereign immunity and that in any event, the immunity is absolute and not subject to waiver.

If the appeal goes forward, the plaintiffs bereaved by the fatal car accident may face further delay of legal compensation for their loss. The plaintiffs may require strong counsel in order to solidify the original verdict in what could become a landmark case that possibly sets a precedent for other cases of its kind in Florida.


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