The Choctaw Nation owns and operates the Choctaw Casino Resort in Durant, Oklahoma. Photo: Choctaw Nation

Choctaw Nation loses big as state court upholds $9.3 million judgment

The Choctaw Nation is responsible for an accident that claimed the lives of two casino patrons, an appeals court in Texas ruled this week in affirming a $9.3 million judgment against the tribe.

The tribe did not operate the charter bus that was bringing Alice Stanley and Paula Hahn to the Choctaw Casino and Resort in Durant in April 2013. Both patrons were killed when the vehicle ran off a highway outside of Dallas, Texas, more than 80 miles from the facility in Oklahoma.

Despite the indirect connection to the accident, the court held that the tribe is "vicariously liable" for it. The casino paid Cardinal Coach Line for the bus trip and was in contact with the trip organizer, who was known to her elderly friends as "Casino Sue," the May 29 decision stated.

As the bus departed for to the casino, Sue Taylor, who also was killed, started talking to the driver, Loyd Rieve, about the route there. The interaction was the cause of the accident, state investigators determined.

"Upon examining the record in the light most favorable to the verdict, we conclude that the evidence is legally sufficient to show that Taylor, as Choctaw’s agent, exercised actual control over Cardinal and Rieve through her instructions to Rieve as he drove Cardinal’s bus," Justice Jason Boatright wrote for the court in the 26-page ruling.

The $9.3 million judgment affirmed by the court was rendered following a jury trial in April 2016. Though the tribe was held responsible for 25 percent of the accident, the judge said the tribe must pay "100 percent of the damages."

The Cardinal company, which declared bankruptcy after the accident, and the bus driver reached settlements with Stanley's and Hahn's survivors and were not part of the case that went before the jury.

The Choctaw Casino in Durant is located near the Oklahoma border with Texas, a big market for the tribe. To help bring patrons there, the tribe is a federally-registered motor carrier and "owns and operates a fleet of buses to transport its customers to and from its casino," according to the court's decision.

When one of its own buses isn't available, the casino contracts with outside companies. According to the court, the fatal April 2013 was one of those instances.

"The appellate court was correct in affirming the jury's verdict in this horrifying crash. This jury carefully listened to all of the testimony and deliberated long and hard to reach its decision," attorney Frank L. Branson said in a press release on Thursday. "Casino operators cannot escape responsibility when they negotiate bus contracts based on the absolute lowest bid without considering the safety of their passengers."

The case is Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma v. Sewell.

Court of Appeals Fifth District of Texas Decision:
Choctaw Nation v. Sewell (May 29, 2018)

Related Stories:
Federal authorities concerned about tribal casino bus incidents (October 28, 2016)
Choctaw Nation offered settlements in fatal casino bus accident (05/04)
Choctaw Nation ordered to pay $11M for casino bus crash deaths (05/03)

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