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Navajo Supreme Court Issues Fundamental Law Opinion December 14, 2007

Posted by rezjudicata in Navajo Supreme Court, Tribal Courts.
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Joe v. Black, No. SC-CV-62-06 (Nav. Sup. Ct. Nov. 29, 2007)

Issue(s): Navajo Law > Fundamental Law >> Nályééh >>> Compatibility of Anglo Law; Torts > Comparative Negligence; Navajo Law > Fundamental Law >> Construction with Other Law

The Navajo concept of nályééh refers to a process of restoring relationships between injured parties and tortfeasors. Joe sued Black and several other parties for injuries when her car struck a horse that wandered into the highway. Joe reached settlements with some parties, but not all. And, Joe did not join some possible tortfeasors in her suit. Assuming that nályééh is a non-adversarial resolution method and comparative negligence is adversarial, can the court apply both concepts simultaneously?

The Navajo Supreme Court held that the concepts were not incompatible. The district court refused to apply both nályééh and comparative negligence for several reasons. First, it held that nályééh (and comparative negligence) requires all involved parties to be present. Otherwise, the court cannot restore all the relationships. The Supreme Court found this to be crabbed interpretation. If correct, the district court’s analysis would prevent many injured parties from seeking redress for their injuries. This is because some tortfeasors could be beyond the jurisdiction of the court or could not be served with process. In fact, the Court said, this made the district court’s analysis inconsistent with nályééh itself because nályééh recognized the injured party’s right to redress.

Next, the district court said it could not apply nályééh because it would require evidence of the settlements, in violation of Navajo evidence law. The Navajo Rules of Evidence (NRE) prevents settlement evidence to show liability. According to the Court, however, the settlements here would not be used to show liability but to ensure that Joe’s compensation was appropriate under nályééh. Moreover, the Court held that courts cannot use the NRE to invalidate a fundamental Navajo concept. Rather, courts must harmonize the NRE and nályééh so that the fundamental rule can be applied.

Lastly, the district court said that it was “legally impossible” to apply both comparative negligence and nályééh. The district court reasoned that because negligence is an Anglo concept based on adversity and nályééh is a Navajo concept based not on adversity but restorative principles, the concepts are mutually exclusive. The Supreme Court rebuffed this last argument saying that the Anglo legal concepts are not per se incompatible with nályééh. In fact, comparative negligence and nályééh serve the same purposes. Both assure that individual tortfeasors are responsible only for their actions. Once responsibility is allocated, nályééh simply adds the element of harmonizing relationships. Indeed, comparative negligence has always been a Navajo concept and is part of nályééh. Using English legal language does not mean that the concept originated in Anglo-American law.

Nevertheless, the Supreme Court did not remand Joe’s complaint. Nályééh imposes a duty of good faith and the injured party must honestly represent that the other parties are party liable for the injuries. Joe filed two actions in separate courts. In the first, she received a default judgment for the full amount of her injuries. But, before the second court, she failed to reveal that default judgment. Instead, the Court characterized her complaint as an attempt to obtain full compensation from different parties. Under Navajo law, specifically nályééh, this was improper. Therefore the Court dismissed the complaint.

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