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Eagle v. United States

United States District Court, D. South Dakota, Western Division

March 13, 2017




         Plaintiffs in Colene Bald Eagle v. United States, CIV. 16-5039-JLV, Docket 1, Shawn Imitates Dog v. United States, CIV. 16-5040-JLV, Docket 1, and Audrey Yellow Hair, CIV. 16-5046-JLV, Docket 1, brought Federal Tort Claims Act ("FTCA") suits against the government arising out of the same motor vehicle collision which occurred on U.S. Highway 18 near mile marker 112 at its intersection with BIA Road 27, known as Wounded Knee Junction in rural Oglala Lakota County, South Dakota, on July 30, 2015. In accord with Fed.R.Civ.P. 42(a)(2) the court consolidated the cases.[1] (Docket 14).

         The essence of plaintiffs' claims is that the vehicle in which they were traveling was stuck by a Oglala Sioux Tribe corrections transport vehicle being operated by Sophia Janis Blacksmith. (Docket 1 ¶ 7). Theresa Imitates Dog-Martinez, [2] a passenger in Ms. Bald Eagle's vehicle, was killed as a result of the collision. Id. ¶ 11. Plaintiffs allege Ms. Blacksmith, an employee of the Oglala Sioux Tribe Police Department, "owed a duty of care to Plaintiff[s] to exercise ordinary care and awareness in the operation, management, maintenance and control of the Oglala Sioux Tribe Corrections transport vehicle." Id. ¶ 15. Plaintiffs allege Ms. Blacksmith was acting "negligently and carelessly [and] departed from the proper standard which caused the collision." Id. ¶ 16. Plaintiffs allege the defendant and the Department of Interior, Bureau of Indian Affairs, acting through Ms. Blacksmith breached their duties to plaintiffs and "were negligent in several respects, including, but not limited to:

(a) Failing to keep a proper lookout for other vehicles;
(b) Failing to keep Defendant's vehicle under control;
(c) Failure to obey traffic laws; [and]
(d) Otherwise generally failing to operate the vehicle in a safe and prudent manner.

Id. ¶ 17.

         The government filed a motion to stay all proceedings in the case until "the related criminal charges pending against Sophia Janis Blacksmith-the government employee whose conduct is at issue in both the criminal case and the above-referenced case-are resolved."[3] (Docket 8 at p. 1). Ms. Blacksmith was indicted by a grand jury in the Western Division of the United States District Court for the District of South Dakota in a case captioned United States v. Sophia Janis, CR. 16-50018-JLV (D.S.D. 2016), for the offense of involuntary manslaughter in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 1153 and 1112.[4] (Docket 8-2).

         The government seeks a stay of all proceeding in this civil case because Ms. Blacksmith's attorney in the criminal case "has confirmed that, while criminal charges are pending, she will not answer questions without the presence of her counsel. . . . [and will] likely . . . plead the Fifth Amendment and refuse to answer any questions about her driving or the events of July 30, 2015, whether in a deposition, in response to written discovery, or even in an investigative interview with the United States." (Docket 8-1 at p. 2).

         The government asserts the court "may, in the interest of justice, at its discretion, stay a civil action until completion of parallel criminal proceedings." Id. (referencing United States v. Kordel, 397 U.S. 1, 12 n.27 (1970)). The government contends that "the criminal proceeding against Blacksmith and the current civil case are so intertwined that the United States cannot defend the civil suit until the criminal case is completed; the prejudice faced by the United States should a stay not be granted is significant." Id. at pp. 2-3. The government argues the burden on the plaintiffs by a stay is "slight" and they "will not be significantly harmed if this case is stayed the short time until the criminal matter is resolved." Id. at p. 3.

         Plaintiffs resist the government's motion. (Docket 12). Plaintiffs argue the government does not qualify as a "defendant" in the criminal proceedings. Id. at p. 5. Plaintiffs contend it is disingenuous for the government to claim it cannot resolve liability in this FTCA action after the government obtained an indictment, based on evidence it presented to the grand jury, alleging Ms. Blacksmith was "grossly negligent." Id. at p. 6 (referencing Docket 8-2). According to plaintiffs, indicting Ms. Blacksmith for involuntary manslaughter "speaks for itself in regard to liability." Id. at p. 7. Plaintiffs argue the only issues remaining are causation and damages suffered by each plaintiff. Id. Plaintiffs assert that if a stay is granted, they will be prevented from obtaining discovery and preparing the case for trial. Id. at p. 10.

         In response, the government argues that "[d]efending Ms. Blacksmith's conduct in the civil case without her cooperation is, in fact, impossible to do effectively. Additionally, this case involves more than just Ms. Blacksmith's conduct: there may be questions of contributory negligence, for example, which again require Ms. Blacksmith's cooperation, or at least the opportunity to question her." (Docket 13 at pp. 1-2).

         The government contends plaintiffs' claim that the indictment is an admission of liability is legally inaccurate. The government argues "[t]he actions and interests of the federal prosecutor in a criminal case cannot be conflated with the interests of the United States in defending itself from tort liability in civil court pursuant to the Federal Tort Claims Act." Id. at p. 2. The government also asserts the plaintiffs' contention that the government will continue its civil discovery through the criminal prosecution is inaccurate because "the entire United States Attorney's Office for the District of South Dakota has been recused from any involvement with this civil case .... [and the Civil Division attorneys of the Department of Justice] will be in exactly the same ...

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