Federal law allows state to hear claim by worker injured on Indian reservation
Swenson v. Nickaboine d/b/a Northland Quality Builders, No. A10-380 (Minn. 02/02/11).
Ruling: The Minnesota Supreme Court held that the workers' compensation laws could cover a worker injured while working on an Indian reservation.
What it means: The Minnesota workers' compensation laws have authority over a claim arising out of an injury to a nontribal employee occurring on tribal land.
Summary: A worker began working for a member of an Indian tribe on a casino expansion project on the reservation. While working, he injured his back when he missed a step while carrying a heavy toolbox down a flight of stairs. He sought workers' compensation benefits. The employer sought to dismiss his claim, arguing that the state office of workers' compensation did not have jurisdiction over his claim. The Minnesota Supreme Court disagreed, holding that the workers' compensation laws covered the worker's injury.
The employer argued that the Indian reservation was outside the state, and therefore, the worker's injury was extraterritorial. The court disagreed, stating that Indian reservations are commonly considered to be a part of the states in which they are located.
The employer also argued that the construction company entered into a contract with the tribe agreeing to submit to tribal court jurisdiction for dispute resolution. The court explained that employers and employees may not contract out of the applicability of workers' compensation laws. Additionally, the worker was not a party to the contract.
The court further explained that a federal law authorizes states to exercise their workers' compensation laws over federal lands located in the state. Other states extended the law to apply to lands held in trust for an Indian tribe.
A concurring judge would not have held that the federal law gave the state office jurisdiction over the claim. The judge would have granted jurisdiction based on a balancing of the state and federal/tribal interests. According to the judge, the state has a strong interest in ensuring that its citizens receive compensation for their injuries.
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March 21, 2011
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