Indian Tribe Loses Suit Blaming Alcoholism on Beer Makers

By Andrew Lu on October 03, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

A federal judge dismissed a lawsuit brought by an American Indian tribe against several beer manufacturers and stores blaming them for the rampant alcoholism on the Indian reservation.

The Oglala Sioux Tribe, which governs the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, brought the lawsuit against four beer stores across the border in Nebraska as well as large beer manufacturers Anheuser-Busch, Molson Coors Brewing Company, MIllerCoors LLC, and Pabst Brewing Company, reports The Associated Press.

Alcohol is banned on the reservation, and it was alleged that the stores in Nebraska would sell booze to tribe members knowing that the alcohol would be brought back across the border and illegally consumed. The federal judge dismissed the lawsuit without prejudice, expressed sympathy for the Indian tribe, and said that the proper venue for the lawsuit was in a state court.

The ban on alcohol has largely been in place in the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation since 1832 (there was a two-month period when it was legal in 1970), reports the AP. Yet, alcoholism is rampant among tribe members.

One in four children born on the reservation suffers from fetal alcohol syndrome or fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, and the average life expectancy is estimated between 45 and 52 years thanks in large part to alcohol abuse, the tribe argued in their lawsuit.

The federal judge noted that there was "little question" that the alcohol sold in Nebraska contributed to the problem on the reservation, reports the AP. However, the judge said there was nothing he could do to solve the problem given federal court jurisdiction.

Generally, a federal court can have jurisdiction over a matter if it involves parties from two different states -- such as South Dakota and Nebraska. However, in certain cases where a state law dominates or if there is not complete diversity in the parties, a federal court may defer to a state court to rule on the case.

That is what happened in this case. The federal judge did not rule on the merits of the case and declare the beer stores a winner. Instead, a federal judge simply said the lawsuit was brought in the wrong court. The Indian tribe can still file their lawsuit in a state court and seek the exact same damages.

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