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Bethel Native Corp. v. Department of the Interior

Citation: 30 ELR 20492
No. No. 98-35316, 208 F.3d 1171/(9th Cir., 04/27/2000)

The court holds that the Eleventh Amendment does not bar the U.S. third-party claim against the state of Alaska for equitable apportionment of damages alleged in a Federal Tort Claims Act action brought by a Native American tribe against the United States for damages caused by leaking fuel. The United States donated diesel fuel to Alaska, and Alaska sold it to a town. During the town's use of the fuel, 110,000 gallons spilled and contaminated a Native American tribe's land. The tribe sued the United States, which sued the state as a third-party plaintiff. The court first holds that the Eleventh Amendment does not generally bar actions by the United States against a state in federal court. The court next holds that an Alaska statute addressing third-party claims for equitable apportionment does not alter such a bar. Alaska argued that under Alaska law, a third-party plaintiff's right of recovery in an equitable apportionment action vests with the original plaintiff and, therefore, the U.S. claim was asserted on behalf of a private citizen plaintiff who would normally be barred by the Eleventh Amendment from asserting the claim directly. However, in substance, the claim by the United States is not a private-party action and is not intended primarily to benefit a private party. The main purpose of the U.S. claim is to benefit itself by reducing any damages the tribe would recover from the United States. Further, even if the tribe may benefit by having the United States bring in the state as a party, the Eleventh Amendment does not prevent the United States from bringing a claim against the state. The court further holds that the potential preclusive effect of an equitable apportionment of fault does not bar the U.S. third-party claim. Although state principles of collateral estoppel may preclude relitigation in state court of an issue originally determined in federal court, the United States can sue the state even when its claim ultimately results in payment from the state's treasury to a private party. Here, the sole efficacy of the remedy of equitable apportionment is not to preclude a later state court action. Rather, it is to reduce the potential damages that the tribe might recover against the United States.

The full text of this opinion is available from ELR (9 pp., ELR Order No. L-204).

Counsel for Plaintiff
James E. Cantor, Ass't Attorney General
Attorney General's Office
1031 W. 4th St., Ste. 200, Anchorage AK 99501
(907) 269-5100

Counsel for Defendant
Kathleen M. Mueller, Robert M. Loeb
Environment and Natural Resources Division
U.S. Department of Justice, Washington DC 20530
(202) 514-2000