Court allows lawsuit against Viejas emergency responders

The fire department run by the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians does not enjoy sovereign immunity, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last week.

The Viejas Fire Department sent an ambulance with two emergency responders to a non-reservation home in San Diego County in December 2006. The tribe provides service in the county under a state-sanctioned agreement that preserves its sovereign immunity.

For that reason, the tribe itself cannot be sued, the 9th Circuit determined. However, the court said the fire department and the two employees do not enjoy the same immunity.

"We see no reason to give tribal officers broader sovereign immunity protections than state or federal officers given that tribal sovereign immunity is coextensive with other common law immunity principles," Judge Jerome Farris wrote in the 2-1 decision.

The decision allows the family of a non-Indian woman who died at the scene to sue the Viejas Fire Department, the two responders, San Diego County and several county sheriff's deputies. The family alleges the officers contributed to Kristin Marie Maxwell-Bruce’s death by failing to transport her to a hospital in a timely manner.

The decision, however, appears to place the blame at the county sheriff's department. The court said Sgt. Michael Knobbe refused to allow the Viejas ambulance to leave the scene even though the tribe's workers had already loaded Kristin Marie Maxwell-Bruce and were ready to transport her.

Regardless, the tribe's fire department and the two employees will remain as defendants under the ruling.

Turtle Talk has posted documents from the case, Maxwell v. County of San Diego.

Get the Story:
Ninth Circuit Allows Suit by Family of Woman Slain by Husband (The Metropolitan News 9/14)
First Responders Don't Get Immunity for Delays (Couthouse News Service 9/13)

9th Circuit Decision:
Maxwell v. County of San Diego (September 13, 2012)

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